Kate Hoffmann, Jacqueline Diamond, Jill Shalvis

Paris or Bust!

© 2003


ROMANCING ROXANNE? by Kate Hoffmann


PROLOGUE

There is only one person I know who deserves to be named “Mother of the Year” and that’s my sister, Roxanne Perry. When we were little girls, Roxanne used to dream about getting married and having a large, happy family. We’d dress ourselves in toilet paper veils and make bouquets out of plastic flowers and whisper about the handsome men we’d marry. Roxanne found her Prince Charming and they had four beautiful children together. But fairy tales don’t always have happy endings, and a few years ago, Roxanne was forced to wake up and recognize that the man she married had turned from a prince to a big, fat, warty toad.

Though her husband walked away from their marriage and their family, Roxanne ignored her own pain and did everything in her power to help her children adjust. It was hard at first, but she’s always maintained a positive attitude. Every day, she wakes up with a smile on her face, her only thought for her children’s happiness. She’s brave and resilient, patient and loving, and the best sister a girl could ever have. But beyond that, she’s the best mother I know. And if I could be half the mother she is, then I know my children would grow up happy and healthy.

If Roxanne knew I was nominating her for this contest, she would be embarrassed. She believes that simply loving her children is its own reward. But I want her to know that the difficult path she’s walking in life is important and it does count for something. I want everyone to know that Roxanne Perry is the very best mother I know.


CHAPTER ONE

CARL LAWRENCE reread the copy of the letter once more, then glanced at the photo of Roxanne Perry and her family. The publicity department at Family Voyager magazine had contacted WBAM, hoping that Carl’s radio station would provide some additional media coverage for their contest, possibly an interview with Roxanne on Carl’s afternoon show, Baltimore At Home. At first, Carl hadn’t been interested. But then his promotions manager had called Roxanne’s sister, Renee, and she’d provided more background, including the photo.

Roxanne Perry was a beautiful young woman, Carl mused. Dark-haired and slender, with a pretty smile and lively eyes. He tossed the picture on his desk and leaned back in his chair. She was exactly the kind of girl he’d always hoped his son, Kit, might one day marry, a woman who could make Kit happy for a lifetime. A woman who would provide Carl with a gaggle of grandchildren to occupy his retirement years. Instead, he spent his days as general manager of Baltimore’s WBAM, Talk Radio 1010, a job he’d returned to after his wife had died.

Grandchildren wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Kit would just start to take his relationships with women a bit more seriously, Carl thought. But, the women he chose to date were icy beauties who had no interest in a future raising children and keeping a house. In truth, Kit paid more attention to Carl’s sporadic social life than he did to his own, determined to keep Carl’s widower status and family stock portfolio intact.

Carl reached across his desk and picked up a framed photo of his wife. She’d died ten years ago, but there were times when it seemed as if it were just yesterday. “I want him to be happy,” he murmured. “I want him to have a real life. And damn it, I want grandchildren.”

Kit had been such a sweet and caring kid, a boy who used to bring home hurt birds and stray cats, who used to cry inconsolably when his goldfish died. A boy with a soft heart and a big smile. Now, all he cared about was his next deal. Kit measured his success in terms of dollars and cents.

“You would have made a much better match-maker, Louise,” Carl said, setting the picture back in its spot. He grabbed the photo of Roxanne Perry and shoved it back into the file folder. And in that instant, an idea hit him. More than an idea, a plan! If Kit wasn’t going to find a wife for himself, then Carl would have to take on the responsibility. But he’d have to go about it in a very careful way. If Kit suspected he was being set up, the plan would be doomed to failure.

Carl smiled. “Grandchildren,” he murmured. “If I’m going to get grandchildren, I’ve got to find the right daughter-in-law.” And he knew exactly where to start.

He grabbed a pad of paper and scribbled Kit’s name on the left side and Roxanne Perry’s on the right. First, he’d have to find a way to put them together, a way for them to meet on neutral ground. He glanced at the photo. She was an attractive woman and Kit would see that immediately. But Kit knew a lot of beautiful women. What would spark an interest in Roxanne Perry?

“She has to be a challenge,” Carl muttered, writing the word down between their two names. Most women fell all over themselves to date Kit. He was handsome and charming and rich, all the qualities that a good catch needed. But if a woman didn’t show any interest at all, then Kit was usually intrigued and began a single-minded pursuit.

“This is more complicated than I thought.” Carl rubbed his chin. If there was another man in Roxanne’s life, that might create some interest. Maybe he could introduce her to Bill Mayer, the station’s financial manager. He was single and considered cute by most of the girls at the station. And Carl knew Bill made a decent living, since he signed his paycheck. But what if Roxanne fell for Bill and wasn’t attracted to Kit at all?

Carl grabbed the piece of paper and crumpled it up in his hands, then tossed it in the wastebasket beneath his desk. Maybe it would be best to just wing it and see what happened. He’d get Roxanne and Kit in the same place at the same time and if sparks flew, he’d be there to fan the flames. And if there were no sparks at all, he’d find another woman…and another and another, until he found the perfect mate for his bachelor son.

“I’ll get us some grandchildren, Louise. Or I’ll go down trying.”


ROXANNE HEARD IT from the kitchen, the sound of the mail slot creaking open and the stack of bills dropping onto the hardwood floor of the foyer. She slowly turned away from the sinkful of dirty dishes, the familiar sick feeling growing in her stomach. Grabbing a dish towel, she wiped her hands dry then started for the front door.

On the way, she made a detour. Instead of picking up the stack of bills, she opened the hall closet door and stepped inside. When the door was shut, blackness surrounded her. Only then could she allow the tears to come.

Her daily afternoon cries had been a two-year habit. At first, she’d cried out of sorrow and then out of anger. But now the tears had become a way of coping, of focusing all her emotions into a few minutes so she could get on with the business of life-the kids, the bills, the house that seemed to be crumbling around her.

Roxanne drew a deep breath and thought about all those things that usually started the tears-her husband’s infidelity, her deteriorating bank account, her loneliness. “And I’m never going to have sex again in my entire life,” she murmured.

Usually that was enough, but today the tears just wouldn’t start. Maybe she was dehydrated. She sat down on a box of mittens and scarves, listening to the sound of the television drifting out from the living room. Danny, Rachel, Michael and Jenna were watching Saturday afternoon cartoons and eating Jell-O cubes, their regular routine.

After she finished her cry, she’d pick up the mail and sit down at the kitchen table, the way she did every afternoon. And once she juggled the family finances and put off the bill collectors for a few more days, she’s start supper… Roxanne moaned, squeezing her eyes shut. “Just like I do every afternoon.”

This was ridiculous! She was living a cliché, the abandoned wife with the dismal future. She’d become a bad Jerry Springer guest, filled with resentment and hidden anger and a list of grievances against her ex-husband that seemed to be unending. He couldn’t just have decided that marriage wasn’t for him. No, he had to completely humiliate her in the process.

She’d had such a perfect marriage-or at least that’s what she’d thought. On the surface, John Perry seemed like the model husband, a good father and a generous provider. He’d wanted a big family and Roxanne had been thrilled to be a stay-at-home mother. They’d bought a beautiful old Victorian row house in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore and had begun to restore it. His job as a lawyer gave them extra money for vacations and a nice car and dinners out twice a week. Though he spent long hours at the office she’d assumed it was all part of building a career.

But now she’d realized how naive she’d seen. John had run off to Barbados not with a pretty secretary or an aspiring supermodel, which she might have understood. He had thrown her over for a muscle-bound Amazon, a client with a career in professional wrestling and a complicated lawsuit brought by her greedy family. Roxanne had lost her man to “The Velvet Hammer,” a woman she’d seen only once when she secretly taped Wednesday Night SlamFest and watched after the children when to bed.

“My children’s stepmother has biceps bigger than my head,” she said, hoping that might start the tears. But all it brought was a little giggle.

It was all so embarrassing. She’d always thought her husband was a rational, intelligent man, a man who loved his family and his position in the community. But then Roxanne had discovered the savings account empty and the stock portfolio gone. Luckily, she’d still had a small trust fund from her grandfather to pay the day-to-day expenses. Even after the divorce settlement was final, the child support had been slow in coming.

“This is my life,” she muttered. “A dark, musty closet filled with mismatched mittens and moth-eaten scarves.” She thought a silent recitation of all she’d lost would open the floodgates, but she couldn’t seem to muster even a tiny sob. What did this mean?

“Mommy?”

Roxanne saw the light beneath the closet door flicker and she knew Danny, her six-year-old, was outside, his face pressed to the floor, trying to see if she was inside. Sometimes, when she came out of the closet, he was lying on the rug, waiting for her, always the little man ready to come to her rescue. Such a big burden for such a tiny boy, to be the man of the family.

“What is it, sweetie?”

“Rachel wants juice,” he said. “When are you coming out?”

“Mommy’s just dusting,” Roxanne said. “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

“I can dust the closet for you,” Danny offered.

Roxanne sighed softly. For some reason, she just couldn’t work up a good case of tears today. All the anger she’d kept so well hidden had slowly dissolved until there was nothing left. Two years ago, her husband had walked out. A year ago, the divorce was finalized. And her future began today. The revelation stunned her. She was finally over John. Six years of marriage and that was it.

“Mommy?”

She bent down and looked at her son beneath the door. “Yeah, sweetie.”

“There’s a man on the porch. Should I let him in?”

“It’s probably just the mailman. Maybe he forgot something.”

“He has flowers and balloons. Can I let him in?”

Frowning, Roxanne struggled to her feet and opened the door carefully, waiting for Danny to scoot back. But her son wasn’t on the floor, he was standing at the front door, smiling up at a stranger who waited on the front porch. With a soft cry, Roxanne hurtled past him and slammed the door shut. Then she bent down in front of Danny and put on a stern expression. “Do you remember what Mommy told you? You never, ever open the door to a stranger.”

“But he has balloons,” Danny said.

“I don’t care if he has a million cute puppies and ten tons of candy. You never, ever open the door to a stranger. Do you understand?”

Danny nodded, then glanced over at the door. “Can I let him in?”

“No,” Roxanne said. “But you can ask me to let him in.”

“Let him in, Mommy, let him in. He has balloons.”

Roxanne patted her son on the head, then opened the front door a crack. A distinguished-looking gentleman in a rumpled overcoat stood in the chilly March wind, a huge bouquet of roses in one hand and a cluster of balloons in the other. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Are you Roxanne Perry?”

“I am.” She opened the door a bit wider. A bizarre thought raced through her mind. Publishers Clearing House! She’d filled out the entry forms a few months ago on a lark. Sure, she could use five or ten million dollars, she had thought. But she also had known the odds were against her. Maybe her luck had finally changed!

“Congratulations,” he said, holding the roses out. “I’m happy to inform you that you’ve-”

“Oh, my God,” Roxanne cried, throwing the door open and dragging him inside. “How much have I won? Where is Ed McMahon? Am I on television?”

The gentleman glanced over his shoulder, then back at Roxanne. “I’m sorry. I’m not from Publishers Clearing House. I’m Carl Lawrence, general manager of WBAM Talk Radio 1010.”

“A radio station? Are you giving away money?”

He shook his head. “I’m here to congratulate you, Mrs. Perry. You’ve been named a finalist in the Mother of the Year contest, sponsored by Family Voyager magazine. My radio station is promoting the contest and I’ve come to congratulate you.”

The kids gathered around his feet and he handed them each a pair of balloons. They ran off, the colorful balloons trailing after them.

“But I never entered a contest,” Roxanne said. “Except for Publishers Clearing House.”

“I entered you.” Roxanne’s sister, Renee, stepped up onto the porch. She held up her camera and snapped a photo. “I wanted to get here in time, but I got caught in traffic. Are you surprised?”

White spots danced in front of Roxanne’s eyes. “I don’t understand. Why would you enter me in a contest?”

“Because you’re the best mother I know,” Renee said. “And you deserve to be recognized for how well you’ve managed to keep your family together after that jackass scumbag loser you called a husband walked out on you.” She turned to Carl Lawrence. “Pardon my French.”

Carl Lawrence cleared his throat, clearly uneasy with Renee’s acidic commentary. “Mrs. Perry, if I may, I’d like to discuss some publicity ideas with you. Our radio station has agreed to do a cross-promotion with Family Voyager magazine. We’d like to do several interviews and possibly some public appearances with radio remotes. As you probably know, we have a big listener base of mothers, ages 25 to 36.”

“You announce the public school lunch menus,” Renee said. “My kids and I listen every morning.”

“Well, that’s not all we do at WBAM,” Carl said. “We’re family-oriented talk radio. Have you listened to our Baltimore At Home show?”