“Are you ready for randori, McCarthy-nan?” Morrow Sensei asked.
Lauren McCarthy tightened the belt on her dogi, bowed to the man she faced who asked the question, then turned to bow to the four men across the mat before assuming the stance that told them she was ready for their attack.
Her mind should have been focused on what was about to happen, focused on the men who would hold nothing back as they fought to defeat her. Unfortunately, her thoughts as she waited were racing ahead to the mandatory lunch with her mother. It would be yet another meeting where she would have little or no control, where she would be incessantly nagged about reconciling with her cheating SOB of an ex-husband. Resentment and anger tightened her stressed muscles more painfully. She ordered herself to calm down, but lost the opportunity when all four men rushed her at once.
Five years of hard training kicked in as all her focus shifted immediately to protecting herself. She sent the first man sailing past her shoulder as she deflected his attempt to grab her. The second one she stopped with a sharp hit of her flat palm, landing him on the mat three feet in front of her. The third man kicked high at her shoulder. She grabbed his ankle, twisted his whole body, and sent him flying off to the side.
However, the fourth man caught her unprotected, connected with a dual punch to her chest, knocking her back on her heels. The power of a hit from a man her mind registered instantly as bigger than even James Gallagher stunned her momentarily. She shook her head to clear it, hair swinging as she righted herself.
And though she looked her opponent in the eye as she prepared her defense, in her mind she saw Jim instead. A sudden burst of temper travelled through her veins like liquid fire. She rocked forward to the balls of her feet, narrowed her eyes, and charged her attacker before she could stop herself. Two seconds later, the man was pinned to the mat with her foot across his throat. He pounded the mat with a loose hand, signaling his concession to defeat.
Lauren swallowed, removed her foot, and reached a hand down to help him up. He was one of her fellow students, though not as practiced as her. She respected him because he was often the only one brave enough and big enough to withstand the full force of her when her adrenaline was high. But she had no right to project her anger at her mother or another man onto her sparring partner, and was instantly ashamed for having done so.
After she was sure he was okay, Lauren walked backwards to stand where she began. She was breathing heavily, body still vibrating from the rush. The four men backed up to stand across from her, then bowed to her, acknowledging her win.
Lauren sniffed quietly, fighting not to shed the tears of regret that always followed one of her emotional meltdowns on the mat. She bowed to the men, and then watched them bow out to leave the mat before she turned to Morrow Sensei again. She dropped to her knees and rocked her hips back on her heels, waiting for the lecture she knew was coming. At that moment, she wished her chin-length silver blond hair had been longer, just so it could cover more of her embarrassed face.
Her sensei waited a full two minutes before talking, waited—Lauren knew—to make sure she had ample time to reflect and regret.
“The answer is yes, I noticed you lost your temper again. My advice to you is still the same. Resolve your emotions off my mat,” Morrow Sensei told her firmly, an impatient edge to the command. “Your problems will never be resolved here no matter how many men you defeat.”
She acknowledged his words with a respectful nod and another sniff.
“I can provide you no sempai to fight with who are more skilled than you. Your temper is the only thing keeping you from teaching. It is time to master yourself and become a sensei,” he said sternly. Then he simply shook his head and sighed heavily. “Seeing you so close to tears makes me want to go beat someone up, Lauren. You know I am not a violent man.”
Lauren laughed softly at his denial of being violent, recalling the numerous times he had fought and defeated her. Joseph Morrow was currently the only person in her dojo that could take her down. It only made her sniff harder. Her respect for the man was above all others. “Thank you for caring, Morrow Sensei.”
“Sometimes a person has to put his or her needs first in order to find a path to healing their heart,” Morrow Sensei stated more softly.
Then he stood and she stood. She bowed to him and backed up several steps before turning to leave the mat, much more humbled than when she first stepped onto it earlier.
*** *** ***
“Really, Lauren—would it kill you to wear a feminine dress that didn’t emphasize how wide your hips are? Those jeans are deplorable. They only emphasize assets better hidden,” Lydia informed her only child, a daughter who was never going to be delicately feminine enough for most normal men to want to date, much less marry. It was an unfortunate accident of her husband’s gene pool contribution that her daughter ended up taller than most men.
“I was sparring at the dojo all morning, Mother. Be grateful I showered and changed before I showed up,” Lauren replied, sipping her mineral water. “I told you I really didn’t have time for lunch today.”
“This couldn’t wait. I needed to tell you something important. Jared has given the woman he’s seeing a ring—an engagement ring,” Lydia said sadly, shaking her head. “Honestly, I don’t know what he sees in her. She’s not even that attractive. I suppose she’s more slender than you, and smaller overall, but Jared seemed to always favor your height when you were married.”
The news made Lauren want to jump up and do a happy dance. Her ex-husband was engaged now? She sincerely hoped it was true. Maybe the day wasn’t going to be so bad after all, she decided, sighing. Maybe her mother would give up now and leave her love life alone.
“I hear Jared takes the woman to dinner every Thursday at The Grey Goose, so I made a reservation for us this evening,” Lydia said, ignoring the look of disbelief her daughter was sending her. “Wear the short black dress he was so fond of on you. And for God’s sake, try to look happy for once.”
Lauren looked at the woman across from her, trying to wrap her head around the fact she was being encouraged to compete for the attentions of a man who had been repeatedly unfaithful to her for the entirety of their marriage. She’d lost count after thirty or so women, but suspected there had likely been more than she knew about. When two years of therapy had failed to change his behavior, Lauren had finally given up and divorced him. Regina had helped her find an apartment the day she made the decision, and that very evening introduced her to Alexa.
“Mother, I have dinner with Alexa and Regina on Thursdays—every Thursday. I am not available, but even if I were—why would I want to impress Jared Smith? Honestly, I don’t know how you could even suggest such a thing,” Lauren said softly.
“For heaven’s sake, Lauren, you’re forty-two. Men are not easy to find at your age. Jared may be the only choice you have left. At least he’s free to marry you, which is better than the man you’ve been chasing after lately. You need to get over your infatuation with James Gallagher and come back down to earth. Gallagher is married, Lauren. He openly admits it. There’s no room for you in his life,” Lydia said wisely, lifting her cocktail for a stiffening drink, glaring at her obstinate daughter.
“You may be right about Jim, though I still have never seen a wife,” Lauren conceded, knowing full well he had already shaken off every friendly gesture she’d made, citing his marital status as a reason. “But you are dead wrong about Jared. I’d rather die alone than let him in my life again. I made every effort to save my marriage, but by the time I divorced him—it was truly over. I wish his next wife better luck. That’s all I can do.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Lydia said sarcastically. “You’re half-way to dying already at your age. You’ll be thinking I’m right when you’re alone at sixty-six like I am.”
“You’re only alone because you choose to be,” Lauren told her more gently, reaching across the table to touch her mother’s hand, trying to connect with a woman who seemed determined never to accept her. “Lots of men would date you if you would just go out with them.”
“I would never tarnish your father’s memory by remarrying,” Lydia declared.
“Mother—you didn’t even like Daddy. You had separate bedrooms for most of your marriage. What could possibly get tarnished?” Lauren asked, her frustration evident in her declaration, but for once she didn’t care.
“You don’t understand the complexities of relationships, Lauren. Men are beastly, and none of them are capable of being faithful,” Lydia shook her head. “In his own way, Jared loves you. Maybe you weren’t woman enough to meet all his needs, and I certainly understand not wanting to fulfill your wifely duties. God knows I hated it with your father, and was grateful when he turned his attentions elsewhere. Still, Jared treated you well except for the other women. Your father and I fought until the last ten years together. Sometimes a peaceful coexistence can be enough. Jared will see you never lack financially. You could be using your trust fund for enjoyment instead of paying bills with it.”
“Mother, there’s no room in Jared’s heart to love a wife. I’m sorry you had a bad marriage with Daddy. He always told me he loved you but could never find a way into your heart. I’m sorry you—hate sex,” Lauren said, making herself say the words. “But I like sex just fine. Jared didn’t have to go anywhere to have his needs met. The other women were about him, not about me.”
“Really? If you like sex so much, then why have you not been dating all these years?” Lydia challenged. “I think inside you’re still pining for Jared. He tells me all the time how much he misses you.”
“Of course he misses me. I was the back-up woman when he ran out of affairs,” Lauren said scathingly. She thought briefly about mentioning her vibrator collection, which kept her from needing to date men, but decided it might shock a woman who hated sex into a heart attack.
“Believe me—I’m not pining for Jared or any other man. I’m not dating because I want to keep my life simple,” Lauren said. “And I wasn’t interested in being sexual with anyone until recently. I’ve never been interested in casual affairs.”
“You can say whatever you want,” Lydia told her, patting Lauren’s hand. “But as your mother, I can tell when you’re in denial. Jared is going to marry this woman if you don’t stop him, Lauren. I know you can do this, darling. I have faith in your womanly wiles, even if you don’t.”
Lauren closed her eyes. Her sensei was right. She needed to deal with her problems off the mat, but it was hard to resolve anything with a woman so detached from reality. It was futile to argue with someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t hear you. This was why she lost her temper so often.
The situation with Jim was frustrating, but the one with her mother was utterly impossible. She had never been close to her mother, but it had gotten even worse after her father died. Her mother had no one else to torture but her now.
“I’ll happily dance at Jared’s wedding and buy them a big gift,” Lauren said brightly, trying to irk her mother into understanding the depths of her loathing for her ex.
“Don’t worry, darling. I understand sarcasm when I hear it. If he actually goes through with a second marriage, I’ll be standing by your side holding the box of tissues,” Lydia said, smiling at her daughter and feeling sorry for her.
Lauren put her head in her hand while her mother patted and cooed.
*** *** ****
That evening at Lucinda’s, they were almost finished with the appetizers before Regina finally couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Why are you not eating, Lauren? Did you have a fight with Lydia today?” she demanded. Regina refused to call the woman Lauren’s mother. What Lydia McCarthy put Lauren through was not nurturing or even friendly, much less motherly.
Alexa lifted her head and studied Lauren’s frown with new eyes. She’d been so happy planning her wedding she hadn’t noticed Lauren’s distress.
Lauren sighed deeply and closed her eyes. The last thing she wanted was to talk about her mother, but she knew Regina and Alexa would nag her until she spilled it all.
“Today was worse than usual. Mother has decided my lack of dating is because I hate sex. Then as if discussing my sex life over pasta wasn’t bad enough, she told me I should put up with Jared’s other women so I won’t be alone like she is at her age.”
“Honey, Lydia’s not alone because of her age,” Regina said firmly, wincing at the harshness of her criticism. “Sorry. It’s not my place to critique your mother.”
Alexa snorted. “Are you sure Lydia is your real mother?” she asked sarcastically.
Lauren snorted back. “Like either of your mothers is a prize—I mean seriously, do either of your mothers approve of you?” she asked both women, stung by the criticism, mostly because she hated the fact it was true.
And okay, maybe Lauren had lost count of the number of times she’d fantasized about Lydia not being her real mother.
Annoyed at the conversation as much as the distress on Lauren’s face, Alexa flipped her hair over her shoulders. “My mother is seventy-four and living the high life in her Florida retirement community. We enjoy the distance between us. I do think she likes me better now that I’m getting married to a Marine.”
Regina waved a hand in the air. “My mother is never going to approve of me because of what I do,” she said, heavy resignation in her voice. “But she loves me in her own way. I let that be enough. She adores Ben, of course. I’m sure she thinks I’m not good enough for him.”
“See there? There are lots of lousy mothers in the world,” Lauren insisted. “Mine is just annoying—and okay, really, really annoying, especially about my ex.”
“The problem is that unlike me and Regina, you still get pissed over your fights with Lydia, and then you get depressed when the guilt sets in,” Alexa said, grinning.
“My mother is not the only one who pisses—makes me mad,” Lauren corrected, tucking her hair absently behind one ear, glaring as Alexa’s words hit their target.
“Wow. You almost swore back at me. Lydia must have pushed the big buttons today,” Alexa teased, hoping Lauren would just let her anger rip for once. It wasn’t good to hold back all the time.
“Even if you don’t want to fight with Lydia, one of your dilemmas can be easily resolved,” Regina offered with a smile. “Start dating again and tell your mother you’re officially looking for sex. Solves that misconception—easy peasy.”
“Easy peasy? I’ve been hitting on Jim for weeks now, trying to date him. He won’t have anything to do with me physically,” Lauren complained. “You know he avoids me when he can.”
“Jim Gallagher is not the only man in the world, honey,” Alexa said, smiling also. “Besides, Jim might change his mind once he sees you back on the open market again.”
“But I don’t want to date other men,” Lauren said softly. “I don’t like most men. I’m not even sure I like Jim sometimes.”
“Dating would be good for you,” Regina told her, ignoring the hurt in Lauren’s voice. “And I agree with Alexa. It might wake up Mr. Gallagher a bit to see you aren’t pining away for him.”
“Dating means dressing up to lure men. I hate all the games,” Lauren complained. “Won’t Jim eventually—?”
What? she asked herself. Want you so badly he would set aside his guilt, tell you there is not a real wife, and take you to bed? Just because he kissed you a few times? Danced with you a few times?
Lauren looked at Alexa and Regina, saw the wisdom in their suggestions.
“Fine,” she grumbled. “I’ll think about dating, but I am not sleeping with other men to prove anything to my mother, or to Jim.”