Four women come together at a tumultuous time in their lives, forging an unbreakable bond that will leave them all forever changed.
Celebrity cooking show host Marni McGuire has seen it all. She’s been married — twice — and widowed and divorced. Now in her midfifties, she’s single. Happily so. She just needs to convince her pregnant daughter, Bella, of this fact. And maybe convince herself, too. Especially after Marni’s efforts to humour her determined daughter result in a series of disastrous dates that somehow prompt Marni to wonder if maybe the right man for her is still out there after all.
Similarly single, Marni’s best friend and colleague is confident she’s content without a man, but both older women soon find themselves leading by example as the young intern on their show appears caught in a toxic relationship — and Bella reveals her own marriage maybe isn’t built to withstand the stresses of the baby on the way.
Suddenly, all four women find themselves at a crossroads, each navigating the challenges of dating, marriage, loneliness and love. Thankfully, they have each other to lean on. The realities of modern love are far from easy, but there’s no better group to have in your corner than friends who will lift you up, no matter what, and hold fast in the face of any storm.
“And that’s a wrap,” the director said. “I think I have everything I need. I’ll do some editing and you can review it.”
“Thanks, Kevin,” Marni said. “My sister and my daughter are coming by for a glass of wine. Would you like to join us for a drink to celebrate finishing another season?”
“Thanks, no. I’m on the timer. New baby on the way,” he said.
“Of course! How’s Sonja feeling?”
“Huge,” he said with a laugh. “But the baby’s still cooking. The midwife says she has a few more weeks. Sonja cried for an hour after hearing that.”
“I remember that feeling,” Marni said. “Like it was yesterday. You better stay close to her. Thanks for everything this season. I think we got some good stuff.” Then Marni turned to her intern, Sophia Garner. “But you’ll stay, right?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “It’s going to be an intervention, I think.”
“Oh, fabulous, I love those,” Marni said with a hint of panic. “If you and Ellen clean up, I’ll put out some hors d’oeuvres.”
Of course she was prepared; just a little fixing up and presentation required. Marni Jean McGuire worked every day and took very few breaks from cooking, writing, studying, traveling and experimenting with new recipes but they only filmed the segments of her show sixty days a year. But filming was intense. Twice a year they’d film for thirty days over six weeks—enough for two seasons. She hosted one of the most popular cooking shows on a cable network. Today marked the last day of filming and they always celebrated.
Marni’s kitchen was essentially a set; all their filming was done in her home as opposed to a studio. She smiled as she watched her producer, Ellen, who was busy cleaning up with Sophia. Ellen was a bona fide chef but she had no interest being in front of the camera. Sophia loved the camera and the camera loved her; after being caught on camera accidentally a few times, she had become beloved by the viewers for her quick wit and delicious accent.
Marni Cooks was very popular but hosting a TV show had never been her lifelong goal. Far from it. It fell into her lap like a glorious miracle. When she was a young widowed mother, she did whatever she could to make a dollar and raise her little Bella. She took a job handing out food samples for a chain of grocery stores. With her baby in a carrier on her back, she turned out to be a hit. She sold out her product day after day, probably because Bella was so funny and flirtatious and Marni, despite the fact that life hadn’t been easy, was personable and approachable. Almost immediately after she began, shoppers came looking for her, engaging her in conversation. They gave her good reviews and told store managers how much they liked her.
Once she filled in for a product demonstrator for the same grocery chain, showing interested patrons how to slice, dice, shred, spiral and chop vegetables. Again, Bella rode along; childcare was impossibly expensive. Her sense of humor and ease with being in front of a small audience charmed people—including the producer from a television station. Marni was hired to demonstrate a couple recipes every week on a local morning show. Along with that she did cooking demonstrations at fairs or exhibits, published a couple of small cookbooks, helped out at catering services, began writing a short cooking column for the newspaper and filled in when other chefs were unavailable as a guest on various cooking shows. Then she landed a full-time job as the on-air chef for a cable cooking show. She had been thirty-two. Her viewing audience grew quickly and soon after she hired Ellen, who was an expert in her own right. Marni was syndicated to a handful of affiliates and her popularity continued to grow. She knew she owed as much of her success to Ellen as to her own hard work. Ellen had a knack for delectable creation but she was such an introvert she would never agree to join Marni in front of the camera.
But in Ellen’s hands the food became a living, breathing wonder and she had become the associate producer over time, thanks to Marni. She knew what a gift she had in Ellen and took very good care of her. And Ellen knew what a great opportunity she had with Marni; no one else in the business would let her just cook without taking on any management responsibilities and yet pay her so well. But every time Marni’s fortunes improved, Ellen benefited as well.
A little over twenty years ago Marni had met Jeff, a news anchor for the local affiliate. Since she lost her young husband when Bella was only nine months old, she hadn’t been optimistic she’d ever find another forever man but fate shocked her by delivering up Jeff. It was a great love, filled with promise and passion. They were a team from the start, both of them being in TV and very visible in the community. They worked together, shoring each other up and urging each other on. Jeff was a fantastic stepfather for Bella and proudly walked her down the aisle six years ago.
Shortly after that something changed. Marni was concerned that a woman Jeff worked with had ulterior motives. She’d been stalking him for years, texting him, asking his advice, professing to be his friend and protégé and constant supporter. Marni had warned Jeff many times that he needed to be careful not to encourage this woman and he always said he could handle things. But his behavior changed and Marni grew suspicious. She caught them making out in Jeff’s car in the parking lot of a local park that sat in the shadow of the beautiful Sierras.
When she realized what she was witnessing, she drove very slowly up close to Jeff’s car and laid on the horn. They jumped apart like two heart attacks. It was divine.
She knew in that moment that her marriage, which she had enjoyed a great deal, was over. Clearly Jeff had been lying and leading a double life for years. The pain of that was excruciating. She also instinctively knew that Jeff and the woman had both gotten what they deserved—each other. Neither was honest nor faithful. In an instant she knew, she would not go a second further with a man who could look her in the eye and deceive her. She told him to leave. He didn’t argue or try to save their marriage, but he did hire a good lawyer and fought for a healthy settlement. At that time they both had solid careers, but Marni was edging ahead. Jeff went after a big slice of that success; indeed, he took credit, as he’d given her so much wonderful advice. At least that was his perspective.
At Marni’s insistence, they settled and divorced quickly. Marni had asked herself if she should pause and think it over, maybe try marriage counseling, but a gut instinct said end it fast. When he asked for a percentage of her future earnings, she knew she’d been right. It had to be over as swiftly as possible. She gave him half, though he hadn’t earned half. Since there were no minor children or businesses involved, he couldn’t possibly do better. She cut him a big check, waved goodbye and ran for her life. She learned you can still sprint pretty well with a broken heart.
After a couple of years of hating him, things settled down. Marni had handed over more money than seemed fair to her, certainly more than Jeff deserved, and that angered her but the relationship was over in her heart. And Karma being a vicious soul, Jeff was demoted in his job while Marni’s popularity soared.
Jeff had used his settlement to open a restaurant, hoping to capitalize on Marni’s notoriety as a television chef. But Gretchen, the other woman, was his business partner and Marni refused to endorse the restaurant. While he was busy trying to cash in on her success, Marni just put her head down, worked hard and became even more popular.
Then there was a sea change. Jeff had not married Gretchen, but he had spent a lot of money on her, found her cheating, and she unceremoniously dumped him, leaving Jeff a broken, much poorer man…with a struggling restaurant. Of course he brought his tons of regret to Marni, begging her forgiveness. Telling her that letting her go was the biggest mistake of his life!
“No doubt about it,” Ellen had said.
“Too little, too late,” Bella said. Bella was, if possible, angrier than Marni about Jeff’s betrayal.
“Men are so stupid,” said Sophia when she heard the story.
Marni had long since stopped complaining to her friends. To Jeff she said, “You broke my heart and tore my family to pieces. Don’t expect any sympathy from me.”
“You don’t understand, Marni,” he said. “I think she used me and turned me against you, the only woman who truly loved me.”
“Oh, I believe I understand completely,” she had said. The story was as old as time. He’d succumbed to flattery and been thinking with his dick. No amount of his regret would change the fact that she’d be an idiot to ever trust him again. She was no idiot.
But she did soften her anger slightly and they were now cordial. Every now and then Jeff would call her or text her or stop by, though the locks on the house had long since been changed. Over the past couple of years he had suggested a few times that they go out for dinner and she always declined. He clumsily proposed she might cook something for him. “One of your favorite new recipes… I would love that.”
“Not in your wildest dreams,” she had replied.
Marni heard the dishwasher start and snapped out of her thoughts of the past. She pulled her pesto canapés from the oven, took the artichoke dip from the refrigerator and heard Kevin depart.
The door opened again. “Mama?” Bella called.
“Right in here,” Marni said. “How is The Bump?” Bella was five months pregnant and cute as a button. It was a pregnancy hard won through wildly expensive in vitro fertilization.
“A little feisty,” she said with a very proud smile.
The door opened again and Marni’s sister, Nettie, came in from the garage.
Marni put down her hors d’oeuvres and transferred the centerpiece from the kitchen island to the long rectangular coffee table in the great room just as Ellen was bringing in a tray of wineglasses. Sophia followed with a large oval-shaped bucket filled with ice and two opened bottles of white wine. She went back for a chilled bottle of sparkling cider in an ice bucket on a tripod stand for Bella since she was off alcohol.
Marni loved watching them enter the room, her colleagues and loved ones. Ellen came into a room with shy demeanor, standing nearly six feet tall, lithe and graceful. She wore her once blond and now white-gray hair in a simple pageboy. She always bent her head slightly and Marni wasn’t sure if her height made her uncomfortable or if it was her shy nature.
Nettie, ten years younger than Marni and the mother of two sons, was an English professor at the university in Reno.
Marni brought out a couple more plates of hors d’oeuvres, Sophia placed napkins all around, Ellen pushed over an ottoman for Bella to rest her feet upon, and they settled in. First was a toast. “A very good season, I think,” Marni said. “One of our best. I’m sleeping in tomorrow.”
Glasses were clinked in agreement, small plates were filled, napkins unfolded. And Marni looked around with a feeling of warm satisfaction. This was her happy place. This great room with her closest friends and family. And outside, through the patio doors, reflected in the backyard infinity pool was the sight of the Sierra Nevada mountains, still covered with snow, though it was May. They all lived in Breckenridge, Nevada, a picturesque little town nestled into the base of the mountain range just south of Reno and Lake Tahoe. There was a winding road, not exactly a secret but little known, that went switchback up over the mountains and then down into Lake Tahoe. People who grew up in Breckenridge knew it well.
This was an agricultural and ski town, with the mountains so close, and it was beautiful with its million-dollar views of nature at her best. To Marni, it looked similar to Austria.
Marni had overseen every aspect of the construction of this house, the kitchen being the focal point. She and Jeff were married at the time and while he helped by sharing advice and supervising construction, it was her house. She approved the plans and made it part of her business. And she loved it. Knowing it would be caught on camera, it was beautifully decorated in beiges, browns, pinks and mauves. It was redecorated almost annually for the same reason—updating for the viewers. But the most important thing to Marni was that the house felt like a hug to her, making her feel safe and protected.
When Jeff moved out, she filled the empty space he left in no time at all. Filling the empty space in her heart had taken longer. Even though she had stopped loving him and stopped hating him, there was still a hole there. A black cold hole. It frequently reminded her that she had no talent for love.
“So we were talking, Nettie and Sophia and me…” Bella said.
Marni immediately thought nothing good could come of that.
“You’ve been alone long enough,” Bella continued. “You should start dating.”
“I’m sure you mean well, but I have no interest in getting married again,” Marni said.
“Who said anything about getting married?” Bella shot back. “It’s not like you’re planning to start a family. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a boyfriend? A companion? You should at least have a look around. You’re only fifty-seven. You have years of fun ahead! Don’t you want to have someone to enjoy it with?”
“Bella, the thought never crossed my mind,” she said. And she said it rather tiredly. “I’ve been married twice but spent a lot of my adult life alone. Maybe I’m not meant to have a partner.”
“But you’re meant to be a successful businesswoman,” Ellen said, her voice quiet but earnest. She sipped her wine. “And to have wonderful friends.”
“I’m pretty happy with my life,” Marni said.
“You haven’t been married that much,” Bella said. “My father for what? Two years? And Jeff for fifteen? Or so? Maybe it’s time to look at other types of relationships. You don’t have to get married. But wouldn’t it be nice to have someone anxious to see you for dinner? Or to travel with sometimes? Or just to talk to?”
“I have plenty of people to talk to,” Marni said.
“Or to get laid?” Sophia threw in.
They all laughed. “That hasn’t even crossed my mind,” Marni said. But it was a lie. It was about the only thing that crossed her mind where a man was concerned, but it seemed the trade-offs were just too big. There would be all the juggling of emotions and deciding if it was worth the risk. Once one crossed that line, so much introspection followed, deciding if you liked him quite enough to worry about little things like tidiness. Or big things like fidelity. Or what about the possibility of learning that he liked your money more than you? And ultimately was your heart strong enough to withstand learning he’d found someone he liked better. It would be someone younger, prettier, more clever. Someone who had the power to pull him away, use him for a while, then take his money, which was your money, and then dump him. As Gretchen had done with Jeff.
Or worry that he might get very angry and…hit her?
“Mom, aren’t you lonely?”
“I’m much too busy to be lonely,” she said. But of course she was lonely! It would be so lovely to have someone who was just there. If he loved you, respected you. Someone close who could actually be trusted, depended upon. There in case you needed him. Or how about someone who actually liked you as you were, someone who thought it was cute the way you slept with your mouth open and let out the occasional sound that was something like a chain saw…
“It wouldn’t hurt to check it out,” Nettie said.
“Well, Mom?” Bella asked. “What do you say?”
She laughed lightly. “I wouldn’t know where to start!”
“Aha, but you have me! And I’ve worked up a profile for you! I think we should check out some dating sites!”
“We?” she asked.
“I could help,” Bella said. “I’m objective.”
“Oh, God,” Marni moaned.
“Okay, I’ll get us started.”
“No to dating sites…”
“I’ll just kind of ask around. Friends of friends. I’ll keep my eyes open. We’re just interested in a companion. I promise not to set up a date until you’ve had time to look everything over, but it’s time to at least open that door a crack and see if there isn’t a nice man who wants to spend time with you. Someone to hang out with. Right?”
“I’m really not interested. I have my family—you and Aunt Nettie and The Bump. And close friends. Nice coworkers. A demanding job.”
“You didn’t mention Jason,” Bella said. “Your son-in-law.”
“I didn’t mean to omit him,” Marni said. “But of course, Jason, the best son-in-law a woman could ask for.”
“I think you might be overcompensating, but I’ll let it go since he hasn’t been all that great lately. He’s grumpy and a pain in the ass. I’ll post your profile and we’ll see what a fishing expedition brings in. Good. Done.”
“Nettie?” Marni said. “Do you go along with this?”
“It wasn’t my idea,” she said. “But I admit, I wouldn’t mind seeing you in a happy relationship. And I have a lot of friends who found their match on internet dating sites.”
“Here’s the thing,” Marni said. “Sometimes they start happy and don’t last. Sometimes it’s happier to be independent, to have the love and loyalty of good friends and family rather than take a chance on some man living up to his promises. I’m not unhappy!”
“I’m not suggesting you need a man to find happiness,” Nettie said. “That would be stupid. But I will say this—you work so hard and you have for years. Luckily it has paid off. But I’d like to hear you laugh more. And I wish your eyes sparkled like they used to. Back when you felt you had something to look forward to besides more work.”
“I love my work!”
“All work and no play…”
Makes Jane a dull girl, Marni finished in her head.
The name Marni wasn’t short for anything; it was her given name. She was named for a maternal grandmother she barely knew. Her grandmother had been described as feisty, smart, funny and daring. She was taken from them early when she stepped in the path of a streetcar in San Francisco, leaving three grown daughters and a grandchild behind. Nettie, a second granddaughter, was born seven years after her death. Marni had been three and did not remember her grandmother, but she grew up on tales of her.
Marni was raised in a simple house in Reno with her mom, Celeste, and dad, Ernie. Eventually two aunts joined them, Ruth and Dahlia. Ruth had been married and divorced twice while Dahlia had been married though childless when her husband of seventeen years dropped dead. Celeste had been the youngest and had had the longest marriage. It was a house of women and her father, Ernie, had very little to say. The women, on the other hand, hardly ever shut up. Ernie passed away at the age of fifty-seven, a fact that crossed Marni’s mind from time to time, since she was that age now. The family doctor said it was heart failure but Aunt Ruth said it was probably desperation. Because of that, Marni had recently had a full cardiac workup and was pronounced healthy and strong.
Marni and Nettie, short for Annette, got plenty of attention, but they didn’t have much in the way of a male role model. Ernie was pretty much it. He was an auto mechanic and had worked in the same garage for years and had permanent black oil and dirt under his short nails no matter how much he washed his hands. He wore the same navy blue pants and light blue work shirt with his name on an embroidered patch over the left breast pocket every day.
He was a good man. He was kind. He worried about people with problems. He sometimes did mechanical favors for free, something that scorched Celeste’s temper. Marni might have learned good will from Ernie but he hadn’t taught anyone much about how to have a successful marital relationship.
Thus, her short and unhappy relationship with her high school boyfriend, Rick. It was something she really didn’t think Bella could benefit from knowing the truth about. And the truth was, she was dead in love with him from the age of seventeen and he became abusive. The good news was he enlisted in the army at eighteen and from that time on he was away a lot. The bad news—he came home a lot. They married when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one; she thought about leaving him at twenty but she discovered she was pregnant. Soon after Bella was born, Rick was killed in a car accident. Rick had been drinking and by the grace of God had hit a tree and not another car. No one knew he had been abusive. In fact Marni herself wasn’t really clear on that until long after he was gone. Marni carried the shame of that secret just as so many battered women did. She moved back into her mother’s house with Celeste and Nettie and Aunt Ruth and Aunt Dahlia. People often remarked on how strong Marni was, moving forward with such optimism and hopefulness.
Of course she was optimistic. There were days she even missed him, wondering if things might have improved over time, though her deepest instincts told her that was a pipe dream. But she was happy for the most part. The danger was gone. And she was devoted to Bella.
As the years passed Marni confided about her husband to a couple of very close friends. Even though she knew the abuse wasn’t her fault, there was a small part of her that feared being judged. Such was the secret shame of an abused wife. She said her reason for not getting involved with a man was her growing career and her daughter—she was too busy. And she didn’t want to risk Bella’s stability or her own career growth.
After chatting for a little while longer and once again toasting another good season, Bella got ready to leave. “It’s my night to cook. And I really miss wine so I’m going to leave before you open more! After this baby comes, I’ll probably drink it straight from the bottle.”
“Oh that should be attractive,” Nettie said. “I have to leave, too. It’s Marvin’s night to cook,” she added with a laugh because it was almost always Marvin’s night to cook. “I’ll walk you out.”
Sophia picked up glasses and plates, heading for the kitchen, where Ellen intercepted her, taking the glasses. “I’ve got this, Sophia. You can call it a day.”
“You sure? Because my car is making unhappy sounds and I thought I might call my friend who likes to play with engines.”
“By all means, that’s a priority,” Marni said. “And if you need help or a ride or anything…”
“Thank you, if I need help, my papa will be on his way home very soon and he knows about the sounds. I can call him if I need him and it will be no trouble.”
Marni cleared the rest of the dishes while Ellen resumed the washing up. “Would you like a cup of tea?” Marni asked when it was down to just the two of them.
“That would be so nice,” Ellen said. “It was a long day and good to be finished.” And while she was setting up the plates to drip-dry, she said, “I’ve been having wonderful dreams of gourmet meat entrées like stuffed pork loin and beef braciola.”
“Of course you have,” Marni said with a laugh, putting out cups and tea bags. When the kettle whistled, she poured for them. “Let’s go sit on the sofa. Let’s not talk about recipes yet. I know you’ll have a list of suggestions when I’m ready.”
“A very nice list,” Ellen said.
“What do you think of this idea of Bella’s? This dating idea?” Marni asked.
“Better you than me. But it doesn’t matter what I think,” she said. “That doesn’t interest me. Nor do I think your eyes lack sparkle or that you don’t smile enough.”
“Be honest, do I seem unhappy?” Marni asked.
“Not in the least. I don’t think you have to be dancing a jig every minute to demonstrate you’re happy. Sometimes all the proof you need is that you sleep well and have a decent appetite.”
“I wouldn’t mind having a man in my life,” Marni said. “I just keep wondering if it’s worth the trouble.”
“And there’s the question. You know where I stand on that.”
Ellen had spent the majority of her adult life caring for a severely disabled husband. She didn’t marry until she was thirty-eight, wed a man ten years her senior and within two years of their marriage he suffered and survived a severe aneurism that left him crippled and mentally challenged. He spent seventeen years confined to a wheelchair, many of those years in a nursing home. Ellen never said so but Marni imagined she met his death with something close to relief, if not for herself, certainly for him.
Ellen had family; there were a couple of sisters, some nieces and nephews who were grown now and producing their own families. She wasn’t completely alone.
“Do you ever get lonely?” Marni asked.
“Never,” Ellen said. “I have never minded being alone. There’s only one thing I feel slightly cheated of. Grandchildren. Children would have been incredibly difficult, balancing them with Ralph’s disabilities. Grandchildren would have been nice. But there are the nieces and nephews…”
“You’ve never mentioned, were there romances in your youth? You know about me—in love in high school, much to my mother’s panic.”
Ellen gave a short laugh and sipped her tea. “I went through much of my life feeling utterly invisible. I was so tall and gangly and never could do my hair. My mother forbid me to wear makeup but my secret was I didn’t want to. As long as I didn’t draw attention to myself, I was happier.”
“I had a friend in high school… I guess she’s still a friend, though we don’t have a relationship. She was…is…beautiful and very vain. She said if every head didn’t turn when she walked into a room, she would wonder what she’d done wrong,” Marni said.
Ellen laughed loudly. “If even one head turned when I walked into a room, I’d look to see if I was dragging a length of toilet paper stuck to my shoe!” Ellen sipped her tea. “What was it like being hopelessly in love at seventeen?”
“Not as fun as you might think. It was a little like food poisoning. I was so young and stupid that I was widowed for at least a few years before I realized I’d lost my identity while I was with Rick. Rick was controlling and made all our decisions. We argued a lot. It wouldn’t have lasted. Or at least it shouldn’t have.”
“I never knew,” Ellen said.
“Well, he’s dead. I gain nothing by speaking badly of him. And I know this is probably silly, but I wouldn’t want to disappoint Bella.”
“You’ve never said anything…”
“It was so long ago and I’m afraid I let people think I was a tragic young bride who had lost the love of her life. It sounds so romantic and I didn’t own up to the young idiot I really was. Someday I’ll tell you all about it.”
“That’s why you hovered over Bella so,” Ellen said. “You watched her like a hawk, especially around the young men!”
“I tried. I think we did all right with Jason. Now I have to worry how determined she is with this idea that I should be dating.”
“Hmm,” Ellen said, sipping. “I’ve known Bella for a long time and I’ve rarely seen a gleam in her eye so fierce.”
“It was frightening,” Marni agreed.
“I have a feeling this notion has taken hold,” Ellen said. “I know you’re doing fine just as you are, but you’re a people person. You might just open your mind to the idea there might be a special someone out there, right for you, with similar expectations. Just to see what happens.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ellen said. “I don’t want anyone else in my space. I don’t want any advice from a presumptuous man. There’s nothing a man can offer me that I don’t already have plenty of. But you…”
Marni’s mind did a spin. She wouldn’t be opposed to feeling the flesh or fur of a man’s chest against her, provided it was a good man who wasn’t going to break her heart. She really missed having someone to laugh with. Not that she didn’t laugh with her sister, daughter and friends; they laughed hysterically at times. But that late night crazy laughter in the dark had been so briefly hers and so long ago. She thought it might be somewhat wonderful to have a man interested in what she was doing. Passionate about what she was doing. As Ina Garten had in the husband who dropped into her show regularly to gasp in awe over her stellar culinary skills. She wouldn’t mind someone romantic to travel with, someone who wanted to do the same things she wanted to do, like visit farms, vineyards, distilleries, mysterious hideaway kitchens, hole in the wall restaurants.
There was no such person, she quickly reminded herself.
“You’ll have to shave your legs regularly,” Ellen said.
“I’ve been very happy by myself,” Marni said. “And wearing long pants or leggings.”
“As I see it, you’ve been perfectly fine on your own, but you’ll never know for sure unless you open your heart and mind to the idea of a special someone. As long as you’re closed off…? You know.”
“You think a person can just chant ‘okay, I’m open to the idea’ and the universe steps up?”
“Yeah,” Ellen said, sipping her tea. “Pretty much.”