Title: Lipstick on the Strawberry
Author: Margaret Ann Spence
Genre: Women’s Fiction, Romantic Suspense
Caterer Camilla’s food stylist can make a strawberry look luscious for a photograph with a swipe of lipstick. When she returns home for her father’s funeral —and meets the lover she’d been forcibly separated from as a teenager, she finds that all is not what it seems in her super-respectable family. Meeting Billy again makes her fall right back in love with him. But her suspicions mount that their love might be tainted by her father's hidden life. Has a gloss been put over a family secret? Can a rekindled relationship survive what's underneath?
I relaxed a little when we entered the warm buzz of the pub. I so missed pubs in the United States. At bars there, the patrons jiggled elbows aggressively and the point seemed to be to hook up with a stranger in the time it took to quaff two or three of those drinks with preposterous names. So different from the low-key friendliness of English pubs, especially ones that welcomed like an old-fashioned living room, with tables and. chairs placed near the warmth of a fire. After we’d ordered, Billy leaned across the small round table and smiled. Billy. I couldn’t take my eyes off his. Here he was. After all those years of wondering what had happened.
“I want to hear everything,” I said. “After you left us, where did you go?”
“No. Not, actually.”
“I managed, somehow.” Billy picked a peanut out of a bowl and set it spinning. He did not look at me.
My heart was already hurting with the memory of his departure, guilt at my own good fortune and his bad luck. I heard my voice rise in a forced upbeat. “You seem to be doing all right now.”
“I am. Thank you.”
“Didn’t you go to college or something?”
“Charmed my way into it, let’s say. I could say that’s what I did at your place, too.”
“Oh yes. You did. My father had a way, didn’t he, of picking up kids who needed help.”
Why did I say that? Billy was no kid in trouble. Quite the opposite. He had been uncannily good at first, so anxious to please.
“I’m sorry, Billy—William,” I apologized. “That was a terrible thing to say. I understand now about being an orphan, even though it’s nothing like losing your parents when you’re a kid.”
“Let’s not talk about that. Tell me about your life in America. How do you happen to be living there?”
“I met my husband, Vincent, looking at a Madonna.”
“Ladies’ man, eh?”
“Always, as it turns out. But I didn’t know that then. Anyway, it was a painting, not the singer. I was in a museum in Perugia, and he was visiting Italy as well. You know how when you’re abroad and you meet another English speaker, it’s as if you’re next door neighbors.”
Billy looked blank.
“I’m sorry. That was tactless.” I lowered my eyes to my drink. “I was studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris at the time. Mummy insisted I get some formal training, even if it was nonacademic. Thrilled of course, to learn that Vincent was an assistant professor. He took me away from England.”
A salad appeared in front of me, and I smiled my thanks to the waiter.
“Oh. And where is Vincent now?” Billy raised his fork, eyeing me expectantly over his steaming pub special.
I blinked. “We divorced a year or so ago. Our interests diverged, I guess you could say. And there was the baby issue.”
“Did babies issue?”
I bit my lip and looked at the plate so Billy could not see my sadness. “No.”
I glanced up to see him waiting for me to go on. “I suppose we were both too focused on our careers.” I took a sip of water.
Billy sat back in his chair. He looked relieved.
“Do I smell of onions?” I said.
He sniffed the air. “You smell of perfume, overlaid with a little bit of vinegar and a good juicy dollop of olive oil.”
I patted my chin with a napkin. “Vincent said I smelled of onions. I probably did. He much preferred the halls of academe. One of his graduate students. It’s an old story.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Billy’s expression turned serious. “So now? Is there anyone else?”
He drew his hand across the table toward mine. I didn’t withdraw my own but tapped my fingers on the tablecloth. “No. Oh, Billy. Stop that. You and me. We were teenagers then. I live in the United States now.”
“You? After you learned about computers, what do they call it, coding? What then?”
“Got a job in London. Making a life.”
“Not at the moment. No.”
Billy’s shepherd’s pie wafted deliciously. The scent emboldened me.
“May I?” I raised my fork and gestured toward his plate. He smiled.
I pushed the fork into the delicious squidgy mass of the ground meat and mashed potato and bringing it to my mouth, rolled it around on my tongue. I stopped with a start when I noticed him watching. I had just melted back into the past as if all the years between had never happened.
He leaned across the table and gripped my fingers.
“Camilla,” he said, very softly. He reached with his other hand and brushed a thread of hair away from my forehead. “Your father’s gone now, and we are adults. We can do what we want.”
“This is not the time. It’s too soon. You, here, out of the blue, after all these years. I had to get over you because Daddy—” I stopped.
“Of course,” he murmured and motioned a waiter for the bill. “I’ve got to go back to London tonight, but maybe you could come up in the next few days?”
“I really must get back. If I don’t work, there’s no one to pay the bills.”
A mask descended over Billy’s eyes. I put out a hand to touch his, but he was reaching into his wallet. How I wanted him. Guilt fought that instinct deep in my breast and collided with a wave of grief at all the loss, all the wasted years for Billy, my father and me. A sudden pain tore into my ribs. My eyes filled.
“Here’s my number if you can get away.” He handed me a card.
He looked up and his eyes changed when he saw my face.
He smiled, and we both knew I would make any excuse to come.
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Lipstick on the Strawberry won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest. It was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards.
Enter to win an e-book bundle of all 19 books featured in the Wintertime Reading Bookish Event:
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Winner will be drawn on February 4, 2021.
After working in publishing, as a journalist, as a consular officer and as a real estate agent, Margaret found that writing fiction was much more fun. Born in Australia, she's lived on three continents and both coasts of the United States. These places find their way into her fiction. Though she loves to travel, the theme of home is central to her fiction, and she writes about women, the choices they make, and what happens next.
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