Juliet Nelson looked at herself in the dressing room mirror at Victoria's Secret and felt like a fool. She could not take comfort in the realization that teaching aerobics classes for the past year had done marvelous things for her figure. All she noticed was that she was not the kind of woman who could look comfortable in a black lace teddy. This was simply not her style. She loved coming to this shop. The elegant, feminine decorations, the scents of perfume and potpourri, and the soft classical music made it one of her favorite places in the mall. But she just would have been happier trying on a pretty and modest cotton nightgown. Desperation was pushing Juliet out of her comfort zone.
After eleven years of marriage, she and Michael were in trouble. If you'd asked Michael how married life was going, he would have told you that it was wonderful. Fantastic. He didn't seem to comprehend how miserable Juliet had become over the years as she watched the romance in their relationship slowly die. These days Juliet felt as though they lived like friendly roommates instead of devoted lovers, and she was determined to bring the excitement back. She sighed and changed back into her jeans and black cotton sweater. She might feel ridiculous in the teddy, but she would just have to perform the acting job of her life tonight. Michael was worth it. More than anything, she wanted to have a marriage that was alive and passionate.
As Juliet drove north on Highway 1 back toward Mount Hermon, California, she wondered how she and Michael had gotten to such a complacent spot in their marriage. It wasn't due to a lack of interest or effort on Juliet's part. Over the years, she had read books and magazine articles that promised readers new levels of excitement in their relationships just by using a few simple ideas. She must have tried more than a dozen of them. She'd tucked little love notes in Michael's briefcase, given him back and foot massages by candlelight, and lovingly prepared picnics for two in front of their bedroom fireplace after the children had been put to bed for the night. She'd also made more bold attempts at seduction, like the time she'd met Michael in the garage one night after work, wearing a raincoat and nothing else. Michael usually met her efforts with half-hearted appreciation, as if he didn't want to hurt her feelings but simply couldn't get excited about her plans.
Her most ambitious romantic endeavor had taken place last January, right after their eleventh wedding anniversary. Juliet had secretly made reservations for a weekend at a cozy bed-and-breakfast at San Luis Obispo that her friend Sally Day had told her about. Their room was perfect, with a window seat overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a fireplace, and a sunken whirlpool bathtub. Juliet had arranged for Sally to keep their two daughters, Daisy and Heather, for the two nights. She had even plotted with Michael's secretary at Redwood Real Estate to reschedule his weekend appointments. Juliet showed up at his office in Felton that Friday afternoon with their bags packed and insisted that he get in the car with her.
As they drove down the mountain toward Santa Cruz she began to wonder if her idea had been completely wrong. Michael seemed anything but happy about her plans to kidnap him for the weekend. All he could talk about was the serious customer who had seemed ready and eager to buy. He was obviously angry with her for rescheduling his appointments. "A good salesman doesn't put off a hot customer, Juliet. You know that most of my customers aren't free to look at real estate during the week."
Juliet insisted that their marriage needed attention occasionally, and they went on to San Luis Obispo. He never was able to relax and enjoy what could have been a perfect weekend in a gorgeous setting because he was so preoccupied with the work he was missing. On the drive home, he made her promise that she would never reschedule his work for a surprise trip out of town again.
The customer was still interested when Michael got back to the office, and he bought a house within the week. It all worked out wonderfully; it usually did for Michael. He had been named a top real estate agent so many times that Juliet had lost count. Of course, she was truly thankful for his dedication for providing for her and their girls, and she loved their home. It was more than she'd ever dreamed she would have, growing up in a modest townhouse in San Jose.
Leonard Kendrick, Juliet's father, was an English professor at San Jose State University. His two passions were the works of Shakespeare and his wife. To Juliet and her older sister, Jessica, it seemed that their parents had a love that nothing could diminish. Juliet could still remember the excitement in her mother's voice when she would call up the stairs, "Girls! Daddy's home!" Then they would hear her rush into the downstairs powder room for a touch-up of her lipstick, a quick fluffing of her hair, and a light misting of Chanel No. 5. As Juliet's dad came through the doorway, her mother would meet him with a passionate embrace and prolonged kiss, while Jessica and Juliet watched and giggled from the top of the stairs. When Mom was done greeting Dad, the girls knew they'd get their hugs. Leonard Kendrick adored his "little ladies," as he lovingly referred to his daughters. They just knew that Mommy came first, and it made them happy to see how much their parents loved each other.
Marie Kendrick died when Juliet was fifteen and Jessica was attending UC Davis. Leonard was devastated by his loss and never found another woman to love. Juliet promised herself that someday she would have a beautiful relationship just like the one her parents had shared. But she never imagined it would take so much effort on her part.
* * * * *
Juliet glanced at her watch as she stood in the long checkout line, with a cart full of groceries and a bouquet of gold and yellow chrysanthemums and daisies. She planned to surprise Michael by making him a romantic steak dinner for two. Their little girls were away at a sleepover with Sally's daughter, Katie. Juliet was running out of time, but she took comfort in knowing that the grocery store was just minutes from their house. For once, the fact that Michael never left the office at five o'clock would work in her favor.
The house was completely dark as Juliet parked her Cadillac in the garage. It was only the end of September, but already the days were short and the nights were damp and chilly. "Just a minute, Heathcliff." Juliet opened the door and was met with exuberant jumps and kisses from her Border collie. "Let's hope Daddy is as thrilled to see me tonight as you are. Oh, I missed you too, Heathcliff! Where's Sheba? I've got to feed you guys and get dinner going. Everything has to be ready when Daddy gets here."
As she turned on the kitchen lights, she felt a gentle rubbing against her legs and looked down to see the sweet, white, Persian face of her cat, Sheba. Juliet fed her some of her favorite gourmet salmon cat food on the kitchen countertop then put some mesquite marinade on the rib-eye steaks. Then she arranged the flowers and candles on the old oak kitchen table, got a fire going in the kitchen fireplace, dimmed the lights, and turned on the soft, instrumental music that Michael preferred.
She was upstairs putting on satin lounging pajamas, the same stormy-blue color as her eyes, when she heard Michael come in the front door. She pulled her dark hair back with a blue satin ribbon and ran down the stairs. He was looking through a stack of mail and didn't notice Juliet watching him. It amazed her that after all these years, the sight of Michael could still put butterflies in her stomach. He was everything that appealed to her in a man—tall, rugged, yet sophisticated. He looked as though he'd be just as comfortable leading a business meeting as he would building a deck on the back of a house. The afternoons they had spent at the pool last summer had left him with some golden highlights in his sandy brown hair. And at the age of forty-two, he only looked more manly and handsome to Juliet with the slight wrinkling around his hazel eyes and the weathering of his skin.
"Hi, honey! How was your day?"
"Great! Where are the girls?" Michael asked, without taking his eyes from the mail.
Juliet kissed his cheek, savoring the smell of English Leather as she whispered in his ear, "They're at Sally's tonight. We have the whole house to ourselves. I'm just about to put steaks on the grill. Want to come out on the deck and keep me company while I cook them?"
"First I've got to make a quick phone call; I'm trying to set something up for tomorrow morning."
"Oh, Michael, the girls are staying with the Days until tomorrow night. I was hoping we could spend the morning together." Juliet tried unsuccessfully to keep the disappointment she felt out of her voice.
"Sweetheart, you know Saturdays are always booked for me. I'll make the call and bring out some iced tea."
Juliet stood outside on the back deck, watching the steaks sizzle on the grill, waiting for Michael to bring out the promised iced tea, and wishing she'd put on a jacket. It didn't surprise her that Michael wasn't willing to give up a day of work to spend time with her. Well, they still had tonight, and she was going to make the most of it. But the steaks were cooked to medium rare—the way Michael liked them—before he ever remembered to come outside with her tea. She turned off the gas grill and went inside to finish setting the table next to the cheerful kitchen fireplace.
Juliet called Michael to dinner for the third time, with a threat that his steak would be cold. Finally he got off the phone, hurried to the kitchen, and sat down across the antique table from her. "This looks great," he said with a smile.
"Did I tell you that my sister called yesterday and is trying to set things up so that we can all spend Thanksgiving together at her in-laws' cabin at Lake Tahoe?"
"How long would we be gone?" Michael asked skeptically.
"Jessie and I want to get there by Wednesday night, so that we'll be all settled in and ready to start cooking on Thanksgiving morning."
"Do you plan to be gone the whole weekend?"
"Sure. That's the nice part about going out of town for the Thanksgiving weekend. You can have a four-day holiday without taking any time from work."
"Maybe for Jessica and Dan, they're teachers. I don’t get four days off."
"You weren't planning to work that weekend, were you?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing. In the early years of their marriage, Michael might occasionally work on a Saturday for a few hours, but never on Sunday or during the holidays. "Even you planned to take Thanksgiving off, I hope. Who shops for houses over the holiday weekend?"
"I do—is someone is interested."
"Michael, we haven't taken a vacation with our girls for the past two summers. I think you can afford to spend a long Thanksgiving weekend with your children." It was time to change the subject. This topic was making her feel angry and frustrated. Tonight was supposed to be happy, relaxing, and above all, romantic. Getting into an argument would not help her meet those goals.
After dinner, Juliet straightened up the kitchen and ran upstairs to get a bubble bath going in their whirlpool tub. She lit more candles, put on the black lace teddy, and looked in the full-length mirror on her closet door. The effect was dramatic, with her long black hair nearly as dark as the lingerie, and she wondered why it didn't look right on her. She supposed that women who enjoyed wearing such outfits had a lot of confidence in their sex appeal. That was something Juliet definitely did not have.
Sheba came purring into the room and settled into her evening sleeping spot on the white love seat in front of the bedroom fireplace. Juliet thought about lighting a fire but was afraid of taking any longer to go back to Michael. He didn't like to stay up very late, and she had already taken a long time cleaning up after dinner and preparing the bath.
"Here goes nothing. Wish me luck, Sheba." She looked in the mirror one last time, took a deep breath, and went to find Michael. He was in the living room, stretched out on his favorite recliner, watching an old Star Trek rerun. She sat on his lap and said in a voice that she hoped was seductive, "Honey, I have a bubble bath ready upstairs for us."
"Is that a new outfit? Aren't you a little cold? This is one of my favorite episodes. I'll come up later, but I'm not really in the mood for a bath." He barely took his eyes from the television screen, even though she knew he had seen that particular episode at least three times. Star Trek was a real bone of contention between them. She hated the show, and it came on right when they put Heather and Daisy to bed. So when the house could have been quiet for them to share their hearts at the end of the day, Michael was watching dumb reruns instead. He insisted that he loved the show and watching it helped him unwind after a hard day.
Juliet got off his lap with her face turned away so he wouldn't see how upset and embarrassed she felt. She went upstairs, got into the bath alone, took off her makeup, and let the tears of anger and disappointment come. She told herself she was a stupid fool to set herself up for rejection time after time. She had tried everything she could to make Michael interested in their love life. Nothing had worked. She was out of ideas and worn out emotionally from her efforts.
When the water started to grow cool, she stepped out of the bath, drained the tub while she dried herself off, then went into her room and shoved the teddy to the back of her lingerie drawer. She pulled a comfortable, old, blue-flowered cotton nightgown over her head. As she brushed her hair in front of the dresser mirror, she looked at their bedroom, so beautifully decorated in shades of blue and white. Years before, when Daisy was a baby, she and Michael had spared no expense to completely redecorate this room. They had put a lot of time and thought into designing their own love nest, as they had liked to call it.
Now the impressive four-poster bed and velveteen-and-satin comforter seemed to mock her with its sensual opulence. Nothing exciting had happened in this room for a long time. She put down the hairbrush and crawled into bed next to her faithful Heathcliff, who had already warmed a spot for her.
A Test of Love by Kathleen Scott, copyright 2002.
Used by permission of Kregel Publications. All rights reserved.