Every summer, a group of former English majors hold a mini-reunion. They laugh, reminisce, and commiserate about their soul-sucking jobs. Maybe they should have listened to everyone who warned them to study something “practical.”
Then an unexpected windfall arrives—one million dollars, to be exact—with the stipulation that they use it to jump-start their new careers. Almost overnight, a professor, a bartender, a copywriter, and an administrative assistant reinvent themselves as a bed-and-breakfast owner, a pastry chef, a novelist, and an event planner. But the changes in their professional roles create unexpected turbulence in their personal lives, and soon the secrets and scandals from their past resurface.
For anyone who has ever wondered “What if?”, this engaging novel provides a sweet, funny look at friendship, romance, and second chances.
read an excerpt
Second Time Around
“The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
“We all should have gone to law school.” Jamie Burton plopped down on a white rattan rocking chair, kicked off her flip-flops, and gazed out at the lake. “I’m telling you. Everyone who warned me about majoring in English was right. If I’d gone to law school, I wouldn’t be flashing my décolletage for tips. If I’d gone to law school, all my student loans would be paid off and I’d be swanning around in the trinity of Christians: Dior, Lacroix, and Louboutin. If I’d gone to law school, I’d be—”
“Careening down the slippery slope of insanity,” said Arden Henley, who had a framed J.D. diploma from Georgetown and a plushly appointed office in a prestigious Manhattanlaw firm. She’d hosted a girls’ weekend reunion here at her family’s cottage in theAdirondacks every Fourth of July weekend since they’d all graduated from college ten years ago. “You’d hate being an attorney. Trust me.”
“You’re probably right.” Jamie stretched out her long, tanned legs and swatted away a mosquito. With her bleached blonde hair, freckles, and disproportionately ample bustline, she wasn’t classically beautiful, but she was so cocky and outspoken that beauty was beside the point. Jamie made it clear that she didn’t care what anyone thought of her and so, paradoxically, most people fell all over themselves trying to earn her good opinion. “I’ll admit that my brief foray into corporate America wasn’t exactly a rousing success. Just the thought of being stuck in a cubicle makes me break out in hives. But I’m sick of bartending and getting home from work at three A.M. and being ogled like some airhead model.” She paused. “Okay, maybe that part’s bearable. But the rest…”
Brooke Asplind stopped painting her toenails long enough to strike a match and light the citronella candle next to the chaise lounge on the porch. The sharp citrusy fragrance mingled with the scent of the pine trees surrounding the cottage. “You’re burned out, that’s all. This little vacation is perfect timing. Stop talking about how the glass is half-empty and grab a cold drink.”
“Twist my arm.” Jamie grinned. “What’re we drinking? Microbrews? Wine?”
“Wine coolers.” Arden rummaged through a large metal washtub filled with ice and extracted a bottle of peach-flavored booze with a pastel label.
Jamie wrinkled her nose. “Are you serious? I haven’t had a wine cooler since…last summer, when you low-brow degenerates peer pressured me. We’re not twenty-one anymore, ladies.”
“No, we are not,” Arden said. “We’re more mature…”
“…more worldly and alluring…” Brooke added.
“…and still paying off those student loans,” said Caitlin Johnson, who had leveraged her B.A. in literature all the way to a Ph.D. and an assistant professorship at tiny ShaylandCollege in Connecticut. “But all that debt was worth it, don’t you think? We had some good times in college.”
“We’re still having good times.” Arden took a long swig from her wine cooler.
Brooke’s forehead creased in concern. “Should you really be drinking that? Since you just took your pills an hour ago?”
Arden tucked her feet up under her and settled back in her cushioned wicker chair. Her baggy beige cargo shorts and threadbare Thurwell College T-shirt only served to emphasize the gauntness of her frame. She had always been pale and petite, but now her complexion looked ashen and her cheeks had hollowed out underneath those huge hazel eyes and glossy black hair. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about me. If I gotta die young, at least I’m gonna die with a good buzz on.”
The four women lapsed into silence for a moment, watching the sun sink down toward the jagged silhouette of pine trees lining the lake. Then Jamie shook out all her long, yellow hair and said, “Give me a break, lady. You’re not going to die.”
“You certainly are not.” Brooke waved her pedicure brush for emphasis, splattering tiny pink drops across her bare foot.
Caitlin, who had gotten a late-night phone call after Arden’s latest round of doctors’ appointments, said nothing.
“You got me; I confess.” Arden fanned her face with her hands. “I just made up the whole lupus thing to get attention and an extension on Professor Clayburn‘s final paper senior year.”
The undertone of anxiety ebbed away as they started reminiscing about the professor they used to refer to as the Mr. Darcy of Thurwell’s English department.
“I just saw him last week,” said Brooke, who still lived in the tiny town where they’d attended college and worked as a coordinator for the school’s alumni affairs department. “In the produce aisle at the grocery store.”
“Is he still all swarthy and rough around the edges?” asked Cait. “Don’t tell me he’s turned into one of those pompous, sherry-swilling blowhards.”
Arden arched an eyebrow. “Sounds like someone’s gone sour in the Ivory Tower.”
Jamie snorted. “Wouldn’t you, if your dating pool were reduced to guys like Cheerio Charles?”
Brooke and Arden dissolved into laughter along with Jamie. Cait clapped her palm over her eyes. “I so regret ever telling you guys that.”
“You have to admit it’s the last word in pretension,” Brooke said. “Breaking up via email is bad enough, but signing the breakup email with ‘Cheerio, Charles’ is—”
“Acceptable only if you’re a British aristocrat wearing an ascot,” Jamie finished. “And your peers address you as ‘old chap.’”
“Judgy McJudgersons.” Cait slathered a fresh coat of bug repellant onto her forearms. “How quickly you forget what intellectual snobs we all used to be.”
“Yeah, but we grew out of it,” Arden said.
“I was never snobby to begin with,” Brooke protested. “I’m the one who couldn’t make it through Shakespeare’s histories without CliffsNotes, remember?”
“And I’m the one who currently spends every night pouring tequila infusions for people who think Middlemarch is a war epic starring Gerard Butler and who could buy and sell me 10 times over with their black AmExes.” Jamie shrugged one shoulder. “We’re not being snobby; we’re stating the facts. And that fact is, you were way too good for that old chap.”
“Yeah. He was just distracting you from writing your book,” Brooke said. “Which you can now finish, publish, and rub in his face when you win the National Book Award.”
“Well, National Book Award might be a stretch,” Cait hedged, but Arden waved this away.
“All I know is, Professor Clayburn would never break off a relationship through such cold, impersonal means. He’d probably write a long, poetic letter suitable for framing and handing down to your grandchildren.”
“That he would.” Brooke shook her head and sighed. “Swoon. He’s getting even better with age.”
“That man was hott with two t’s,” Jamie declared. “Plus, he had ridiculous amounts of self-control. No matter how short my skirt was or how tight my top, he never even looked my way. Damn him.”
“You’re insatiable,” Brooke said. “Every guy on that entire campus looked at you constantly. Even President Tait. And he was married.”
Jamie choked on her wine cooler and flushed bright red. “President Tait did not look at me! You’re getting a contact high from nail polish fumes.”
Arden intervened. “Wait, wait, I’m not done with my interrogation of Professor Johnson. Spill it, Cait. Any promising new prospects on the horizon?”
“None whatsoever,” Cait said. “Every eligible male I know on campus is either under twenty-one or over fifty. I’m so desperate, I’m considering reactivating my Internet dating account.”
“Don’t do it,” Jamie advised. “That’s how I met my second fiancé, and we all know how that turned out.”
“I thought that was a blind date?” Brooke said.
“‘Blind date’ is code for ‘We met online and don’t want to talk about it.’”
Caitlin tuned them out and focused on Arden, who had dropped out of the conversation and was trying to hide a wince of discomfort. Arden rubbed at her eyes with shaking hands, then gripped the wooden slats of her chair.
Cait leaned in and whispered, “You okay?”
Arden immediately unclenched her hands and jerked her face away. “Fine. My eyes are a little dry.”
“Do you want me to—”
“I’m fine. Can we please just have a good time?”
The crunch of tires on a gravel road drowned out their tense whispering, and Ardenglanced toward the driveway with evident relief. “Look who finally decided to grace us with her presence.”
Jamie let out a whoop. “Reunion weekend can officially begin–it’s the late, great Anna McCauley!”
They heard a car door slam and quick succession of footfalls on the path.
“We’re out on the deck!” Jamie hollered. “Hurry up; fireworks are starting as soon as the sun goes down.”
Anna rushed into view, bustling and breathless as usual. Short and plump with wild curly hair and an adorable snub nose, Anna combined an innate tendency to nurture with never-say-die tenacity. She started doling out hugs and compliments as soon as her foot hit the porch.
“Sorry, sorry, I meant to be here hours ago,” she said. “We saw a new endocrinologist today and she could only squeeze us in at four forty-five and traffic on the Northway was a nightmare.”
Brooke’s eyes widened. “Endocrinologist?”
“Ah.” Brooke paused. “May I ask how everything’s going with that?”
“Here, I brought cupcakes,” Anna said brightly. “Red, white and blue for the Fourth. Ooh! Wine coolers!” She deposited a platter of baked goods on the rickety table next to the chaise, then helped herself to a bottle from the ice bucket.
“Ahh. Tastes like youth and reckless abandon.”
Jamie grimaced. “It tastes like a wicked hangover in the making. That’s it, I’m making mojitos. Who’s in?”
“I’ll have one,” Arden said.
Cait’s vow to leave her friend in peace lasted less than two minutes. “Arden, seriously, don’t you think—”
Arden narrowed her eyes at Cait, then told Anna, “Throw your bag in the house, pull up a chair, and make yourself at home. We were just telling tales of the glory days. Namely, Professor Clayburn.”
“So dreamy.” Anna clapped her hands over her heart. “But Cait was always his favorite.”
Cait blinked. “I was not!”
“You totally were,” Jamie said. “Life is so unfair.”
“Mostly in your favor, blondie,” Anna pointed out. “So what else is going on in our old stomping ground?”
“Not much, really,” Brooke said. “The usual town versus gown drama. The grocery store finally started stocking organic produce and gourmet coffee…”
Arden cleared her throat. “The college is selling Henley House. To raise money for a new state-of-the-art fitness facility.”
Cries of outrage rang out through the twilight.
“What? Shut yo’ mouth!”
“Blasphemy! How dare they?”
“Not our Henley House!”
“Yep. One of the deans called my dad last week,” Arden said. “To break the news tactfully and to let us know that it was nothing personal and they appreciate our continued endowment.”
“But Henley House was our house,” Brooke repeated. “Site of Primal Scream Thursdays! Site of Pack-a-flask Fridays!”
“Site of your deflowering,” Arden added.
Brooke flushed. “That, too. I’m an employee of the college, for goodness’ sake. How have I not heard about this?”
“What a shame,” said Cait. “What’s going to become of the building?”
“I have no idea,” said Arden. “But now that they’ve built some new dorms, Residential Life decided it’s not cost-efficient to keep the off-campus houses.”
Brooke shook her head. “If I had any money, I’d buy it.”
“And do what with it?” Jamie scoffed. “It was built to house like 15 students.”
“I’d renovate it and open a bed-and-breakfast. I’ve always wanted to run a B and B. I’d decorate every room differently and serve tea every afternoon and homemade biscuits every morning.” Brooke, a rosy-cheeked natural blonde who’d been raised in Alabama, had always been a firm believer in the restorative powers of hospitality and baking powder biscuits. Fifteen years of living amongst the Yankees had eradicated all but a trace of her lilting Southern accent, but when the booze kicked in, so did her drawl.
“Why a bed-and-breakfast?” Cait asked.
“Because I like making people feel at home.”
“Don’t be a dream crusher,” Arden admonished. “I think it’s a lovely idea.”
“Yeah, don’t let the misanthropes gang up on you, Brooke. I like people, too,” Jamie chimed in. “Sometimes, I like ‘em a little too much, actually. But, look, with age comes wisdom. Please note which finger is naked.” She waggled her ringless left hand at them.
Anna nodded her approval. “Hearts must be broken all over Los Angeles.”
“Only those belonging to overpriced wedding planners, florists, and caterers,” Jamie said. “In fact, if I had any money, that’s what I’d do: start my own event planning business. I definitely have the necessary experience. I can see my business cards now: Let Jamie Burton’s three failed engagements add up to one your perfect day. Anna, you could be my cake supplier.”
“Oh, I’m not doing the birthday cakes anymore,” Anna said.
“Why not? Those were works of freaking art!”
“It just got to be a little too…” Anna’s bracing good cheer finally faltered. “Last month, one of the members of my book club asked me to do an Eiffel Tower cake with a pink poodle for her daughter’s fourth birthday, and while I was finishing up the detail work on the icing, I realized that I’d made a birthday cake for this little girl every year since she turned one. Three years, three rounds with in vitro, enough fertility drugs to stock a pharmacy, a maxed-out home equity loan, and still nothing.”
Brooke didn’t hesitate for even a nanosecond. She looked Anna square in the eye and said, “It’ll happen for you and Jonas.”
Arden touched her elbow. “Absolutely.”
But Anna shook them off. “Maybe it won’t. I’m so tired of hearing people telling me to ‘just relax’ and ‘it’ll happen when you least expect it.’ I’ll probably never be able to have a baby, and eventually I’m going to have to face that fact. But right now, it kills me to spend my weekends making cakes for other families. Selfish, I know, but there it is.”
Cait nudged Anna’s bare foot with her own. “It’s not selfish at all.”
“It actually works out perfectly for my new fantasy career,” Jamie said. “I need you to whip up the dessert trays for all my five-star shindigs.”
“And I need you to make crumpets and watercress sandwiches for my B&B,” Brooke said.
“And what am I supposed to do while you’re all colluding with crumpets?” Cait demanded. “Don’t leave me stranded up in the Ivory Tower with Cheerio Charles and an angry mob of freshmen who’re pissed because they’ve never gotten less than a B+ on a paper before in their lives.”
“We would never,” Brooke said. “You’ll be living up in the B&B garret, plugging away at the Great American Novel. We’ll keep you fully supplied with pastries and tea.”
Cait closed her eyes and indulged the fantasy for a moment. “Sounds heavenly. When do we start?”
“Never, because we have no money and no business acumen because we all majored in English.”
“Silence, dream crusher!”
Jamie started belting out Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
Their laughter rang out over the black, still lake as the first firework of the night exploded into the dusk.
Arden held up her wine cooler. “Here’s to ten years of friendship and fine literature.”
“And many more!”
Later, after the other women drifted off to bed one by one, Arden and Cait remained on the porch, hugging their knees against their chests to ward off the damp midnight chill and watching the rippling reflection of the huge white moon on the lake.
They sat in silence, listening to the steady lapping of the tide, until Arden yawned loudly. “Last Fourth of July. Couldn’t have asked for a better night. Jamie was right about those wine coolers, though; I can already feel an epic hangover coming on.”
Cait stared straight ahead and addressed the fearless, frail girl who had started out as her freshman year roommate and ended up as her best friend and bonus sister. “You’re not going to die, you know.”
Arden’s laugh was wry but gentle. “Of course not. I’m only taking an extended leave of absence from the firm because I’m bone idle.”
“That’s not what I meant; I just–”
“I know exactly what you meant, Cait. I know what you mean and you know what I mean.” Arden exhaled slowly, her breath barely audible above the breeze. “So let’s change the subject. How’s the book coming?”
Cait frowned. “What book?”
“That novel you keep saying you’re going to write.”
“Oh. That. Well, between teaching and going ten rounds with the B+ brigade and trying to publish all those esoteric articles in all those esoteric journals, I don’t really have time to write fiction right now.”
Arden shifted in her seat and quoted Marvell. “‘Had we but world enough, and time…’”
“Exactly. But I’ll get to it someday.”
“Well, you better buckle down, sugarplum, because all the best writers kick off young: Keats, Shelley, Plath…”
“Those are poets,” Cait pointed out. “Totally different. Poets do their best work before thirty; novelists don’t even get warmed up until then.”
“Professor Hott-with-two-t’s Clayburn.”
“I see.” Arden changed position again, but Cait couldn’t tell if the root of this restlessness was physical or psychological distress. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but you just had a birthday, didn’t you? Thirty-two?”
“I prefer to think of it as twenty-twelve.”
“Always with the excuses.” Arden’s voice dropped to a thick, slow murmur. “Here’s the thing: time is a luxury. Time is precious. And this is coming from the queen of procrastination. No more extensions. No make-up tests.”
Cait bowed her head to hide her tears. “Can we please talk about this?”
“Absolutely not.” Arden snapped back into her customary flippancy. “And if you start singing ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings,’ I’m kicking you out of the cabin. You’ll have to sleep on the beach.”
“Can I just hum a few bars?”
“You’ll be a tasty bear canapé in your sleeping bag.” Arden shivered. “Let’s stay up late and look at the moon. Pull an all-nighter, just like back in college.”
“You’re on.” Cait ducked into the house long enough to grab two thick woolen blankets, which she wrapped around Arden and herself. They huddled together on the chaise in silence, sharing a cocoon of warmth and gazing up toward heaven. Cait vowed to stay awake, to safeguard Arden with her own vitality, but sometime before dawn, her vigilance lapsed and she slipped into slumber.
Two months later, Arden slipped away, too. She did so in classic Arden Henley fashion, quietly and on her own terms, and not before springing one last, lifechanging surprise on her friends.
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