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Red Carpet Romeo and an Excerpt!

TEN YEARS AGO

Valentina Romeo learned early in life that in order to survive you had to be tough. As the only girl surrounded by six testosterone-laden brothers, she had to be loud to be heard, and—no shrinking violet—believe her, she wanted to be heard.

But it wasn’t easy, because her brothers were mostly bigger and stronger and liked to put her in her place, which meant Valentina was too often left itching for a fight. How dare those boys tell her she couldn’t climb those ancient olive trees with them? And who were they to insist that she couldn’t descend into the damp caves on the family estate and go exploring where it was rumored German soldiers hid at the end of World War II? Time and again those boys left her in their dust and feeling bitter that no matter how hard she tried to be one of them, they fought her every inch of the way.

Of course in their defense they had some competing interests: regular threats from their parents to take care of their “delicate” sister and protect her not only from outside forces but also from her overly ambitious, tomboyish self meant they were constantly conflicted. They knew if they brought Valentina with them when they went off to pursue their near-daily explorations and investigations on the vast tracts of farm and forested hills of Cantine dei Marchesi Romeo, on which the Romeo family had been growing and harvesting grapes and olives for six hundred years, they’d be responsible for anything that could go wrong. And what boy in his right mind wanted to carry that burden?

For a respite from this frustrating daily conflict, Valentina looked forward to summertime, when her family joined with their cousins, the royal family from neighboring Monaforte, at a huge seaside compound on the Ligurian sea in Northern Italy. There the many cousins spent their days on the beach building sand forts and castles—castles being something they were intimately familiar with—and digging for shells and fossils and swimming until they could swim no longer. It was a paradise for children, and while Valentina certainly enjoyed keeping company with her only female cousin, Princess Isabella, it was her older cousin Prince Luca who immediately dazzled her.

Luca, who treated her like an equal even though she was six years younger. Luca who made certain to include his young cousin when the kids hiked up high into the Ligurian hills to capture the view of the sea for miles around them. Luca who caught a salamander and named it Valentina in his cousin’s honor. That was all it took for Valentina to be smitten for life: if she could harbor a crush on a blood relative, well she would have. Instead, she just adored him and cherished the time they got to spend together.

And then Luca showed up the summer of her fourteenth birthday with a new friend—a roommate from university. It was only then that Valentina truly understood how a girl could swoon over a handsome man. Because Parker Hornsby, with his sandy blond hair, twinkly blue eyes, dimpled cheeks and brilliant white smile, was indeed swoon-worthy.

“Valentina,” Luca said as he swooped to hug his cousin and kiss both her cheeks as was customary, brushing her head of embarrassingly bushy brown hair back off her face. “I missed you so much.” He squeezed her nose affectionately. “I want you to meet my friend Parker Hornsby. He’s from America. I told him what a magical place Cieli di Zaffiro was.” Sapphire Skies: it would then become known as the place where she first fell in love.

Valentina took one look at her cousin’s new friend and was thunderstruck. Something deep in her gut roiled to life, something she’d yet to recognize, a feeling so powerful it made her scared and happy and nervous and worried, all wrapped up into one untidy heap of swirling emotions that about did her in, they terrified her so.

“Nice to meet you,” Parker said, extending his hand to Valentina, which completely threw her off. She’d expected the usual greeting, a kiss on one cheek and then a kiss on the other. So instead of reaching her arm out to shake his hand, she leaned in as if to field his courteous side kisses, and instead his hand jammed into her barely-there breasts and she about died from embarrassment as everyone standing nearby laughed at the mix-up, and so immediately she fled the room, mortified.

When Luca came up to her bedroom to check on her later, her tear-stained cheeks thoroughly betrayed her lackluster attempt at feigning indifference.

“Valentina ballerina,” he said, scruffing her long dark hair with his fingers. It was her favorite nickname, one only he used with her. It didn’t even make sense, because she was so far removed from being a delicate ballerina, he should have called her out for the tomboy she was. Give her a soccer ball and she’d kick pretty much anyone’s ass. A pair of ballet slippers? She’d probably slide them on her hands thinking they were mittens. “Why the long face, my friend?”

Valentina sat on the edge of the bed, swinging her legs and kicking the side of the bed in rhythmic motion, staring out the window, lips pursed, not making eye contact with her cousin.

“What happened that made you run off like you did?” Luca said, pressing her for more details.

Valentina hung her head, so embarrassed. “Nothing,” she said.

“Nothing?” He frowned and arched his brow, his bright blue eyes twinkling.

“All right. Fine,” she said with a huff. “I thought he was going to kiss my cheeks like everybody always does and instead he reached out his arm and his hand hit my chest and God, Luca, I mean, really—”

“Oh, sweetie,” he said. “Nobody even saw that.”

“Of course they did. They all laughed.”

“They just laughed at the confusion of the thing. No one was laughing at you, and no one noticed if his hand even touched you.”

She crossed her arms over said chest, about which she’d become acutely self-conscious, what with all of the other girls her age having blossomed into B-cup babes by then, while Valentina was still about as flat as the field of sunflowers her parents had planted for her brother Matteo near their manor home. The last thing she wanted was anyone making cracks about that virtual concavity resting atop her chest.

“Hey,” he said, leaning forward and coaxing her chin with his pointer finger so she was facing him. “It’s okay, Valentina. Believe me, we all adore you to the moon and back.”

She frowned. “It’s just that, well, Luca, I’m a teenager, and look at me.” She swept her hands along her t-shirt clad chest, which was sporting a bra out of pure youthful desire, certainly not need. The giant poof of out-of-control hair didn’t help matters, nor did the splotches of acne plaguing her face.

Her cousin reached around and wrapped her in a bear hug. “Oh, sweetie. Trust me, you are perfect just the way you are. And believe me, before you know it, this is going to be the least of your problems. Pretty soon we’ll be beating the boys away, they’re going to be pounding down the doors just to get to you. Don’t you worry your pretty little head any more, okay? Besides, you’ll always be my Valentina ballerina.”

~*~

It took Valentina a few days but eventually she started actually speaking to Parker Hornsby, and that swirling mess of confusing feelings soon crystallized into what was irrefutable in her young mind: love. She was indeed convinced she was in love with Luca’s good friend, who was handsome and athletic and oh, the timbre of his voice was like hearing the very church bells she’d imagined would peal on their wedding day.

Besides, he always picked her for his side when they played pick-up soccer on the beach, so she knew the feelings were mutual. But as the summer days progressed, she yearned desperately to somehow advance beyond the stage of goal assists and into something more intimate, like a first kiss. She even practiced her nascent kissing skills on a stuffed monkey she slept with, for the day it would come in handy. She had no idea how she would drum up the nerve to act, but she knew she had to; she’d never forgive herself if she let him get away.

One night the cousins built a huge bonfire on the beach. They sat around talking and laughing, the older ones drinking wine and eventually, some even went swimming. Valentina sat along the shore, her chin to her knees, her arms wrapped tight around her legs, not particularly interested in going into the dark ocean water. Until Parker reached out his hand to her.

“Let’s go, short stuff,” he said to her, clasping her hand in his as he pulled her toward the water. At first she shook her head, refusing, but, hey, he was holding her hand! How could she say no? She lifted herself off the cold sand and followed him into the surf, laughing and splashing and thoroughly elated because she knew this must the sign she was waiting for.

She tripped and fell in the shallows, and he leaned forward to help her up. Just as he reached for her, she wrapped her arms around his neck, and blurted out those three fateful words—I love you—while awkwardly angling her mouth to his and planting her lips on his as if she was administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a training dummy.

Parker, instead of embracing her advances, pushed her away.

“Valentina, no!” he said, raking his hand through his hair, clearly put off by her declaration and unwanted advances.

She looked at him with querying eyes, her brow wrinkled, confused at his rejection. “But I thought you liked me,” she said.

He shook his head, looking around, which she took to mean he was embarrassed if anyone had just seen what had transpired. “Of course I like you as my friend’s cousin,” he said. “But you’re just a young girl. This,” he said, pointing back and forth between the two of them, “will never happen, Valentina. I’m a grown-up and you’re a child.” With that, he turned and raced toward the older boys, leaving her dazed and heartbroken in the cold nighttime tide pool, her eyes filled with tears.

He was right, she thought, stewing over his insensitivity. That would never happen. Because she had too much self-respect to moon over that jerk. But she vowed that day she would no longer be the tomboy buddy to all the guys; she was going to show people like that rotten Parker Hornsby. One day men like him would be swooning over her. That she was going to make good and sure of.

Chapter One

Valentina Romeo was a hopeless romantic. And nothing screamed romance more to her than a good old-fashioned royal wedding. So when the much-anticipated invitation arrived for the nuptials of her favorite cousin, Prince Luca of Monaforte, she was beside herself with excitement.

The only thing that made her a bit sad was that she would be attending this wedding minus a plus-one, since she’d been plunged into a seriously dry spell in the man department for far longer than she cared to admit. It would have been more enjoyable to share in this excitement with someone she loved. Although at least she’d be surrounded by many people she loved at this union of their families, and she was stoked. But that wasn’t the same as showing up in a gorgeous ball gown with the man of your dreams in white tie beside you, your gloved arm entwined in his tuxedo-clad one. It had been over a year since Valentina had ended a relationship with Roberto Agnese, whose family owned a vineyard not far from Romeo Wines.

The two families had competed on a friendly basis for hundreds of years, and it seemed a good enough fit. Until Valentina finally admitted to herself that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a man with whom the most they had in common was a bunch of grapes. Sure Roberto was handsome in that classically Italian way, with wavy, near-black hair and warm brown eyes, but if she were to be truthful with herse

Categories: Books

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Wee...

    I’m a sucker for the Christmas season. Always have been. Don’t know if it’s the deluded optimism the holiday thrusts upon us, or just a strange affinity for otherwise maudlin songs dressed up as cheerful seasonal chestnuts. I mean, let’s be honest, at any other time of year, who would actually listen wistfully to a yawner like “The Little Drummer Boy”?

    Whatever it is, I have always ensured that my family gets into the holiday spirit, starting with finding the perfect Christmas tree.

    When I was a kid, the search for the ultimate yuletide tree took us to the nearest gas station: hardly a romantic venue from which to choose the centerpiece of our holiday decor. We’d pile into the station wagon for the three-block drive to Buck’s Esso station, spill out onto the oil-slicked parking lot, mull over three or four already-netted spruce trees, and then dad would haggle down the price. End of story.

Ah, so I was determined to rewrite that tradition with my own family. Early in my marriage, we decided the most festive tree-acquisition could only be achieved by cutting down our own (plus you get the added benefit of the needles actually staying on the tree all month rather than littering the floor). Because we lived in citified Northern Virginia, the cachet of escaping to the “country”–i.e. the closest remaining patch of farmland untainted by greedy developers–only added to the allure.

    But one year, I found myself almost wishing for the chance to just pop down to the local gas station to buy a tree…

    That year, my husband and our three children, all under the age of four, trekked to the Clifton Christmas Tree Farm, where awaiting us were candy canes, hot chocolate, homemade wreaths and the typical abundance of forced holiday cheer that we craved.

    I had whipped my kids into a tree-chopping frenzy, and so they took their task quite seriously. For forty minutes, we foraged throughout the whopping half-acre “farm” until we found the perfect tree: seven feet of holiday splendor, as wide as it was tall, perfect to fill our cathedral-ceiling’ed living room and flood us with the Christmas spirit.

    The kids took turns on the ground with the saw while my husband supervised the chopping honors. Their excitement was palpable. We dragged the tree back to the cashier stand where the farmer’s son coiled the netting around our white pine. The kids stood by, sucking on candy canes, sipping hot cider and petting the farmer’s dog, who’d recently wandered over. I was just about to retrieve the car to load on the tree, when Fido lifted his leg.

    “Noooooo!” I shouted in what seemed like a frame-by-frame slow motion, as a steady stream was released onto our perfect tree.

    For a moment we stood stupefied, not knowing what to do. But we weren’t about to keep a tree covered in dog wee, so we grabbed the kids’ hands to head back into the wilds to hunt for a replacement one.

    Until our kids let us know in no uncertain terms, that this tree was the one, the only. They threw themselves on the ground, flailing and crying, thrashing and moaning, like something from a Greek tragedy. They wanted their special tree, and nothing else would suffice.

    Their wails did not subside until we relented, and agreed to load up the tainted tree.

    The farmer found a makeshift bucket, filled it from a nearby stream and doused the offending urine from the tree. We loaded it onto the roof of the car, and went home.

    I have admit, I sort of detached emotionally from the tree that year. Couldn’t quite get over the psychological hurdle of having a tree the dog peed on in my living room. Somehow it clashed with the whole festive notion.

    But for my kids, the tree was just about perfect, despite its incumbent flaws. And maybe that’s exactly why I like the holidays so much: because at this time of year, we’re all a little more likely to forgive the small things in order to see the bigger picture.

Here’s this year’s tree–note the nativity scene underneath it is Mary and Joseph (and Rudolph) made from toilet paper rolls, baby Jesus is a clothespin. My son made them in pre-school ;-).

   

 

Categories: News

The Trials and Tribulations of Losing Your Fat Clothes...

First and foremost, let me say this: never, ever, ever give away your fat clothes. I say this while sporting my current uniform: a grungy 20-year old Penn State sweatshirt and once generously stretchy yet now extremely stingy yoga pants that haven’t, alas, been donned for their true purpose in ages. My other uniform consists of a black shirt and jeans. Black because it’s slimming. Ish. And stretchy jeggings, to be exact. Thank the lord for tender mercies, i.e. stretchable cotton. Though I was probably better off in the more punitive Levi’s of yore, which kept me honest, size-wise (that is until I could no longer wedge myself into them, and then so much for that honesty, eh?).

trying to avoid this
trying to avoid this

A couple of years ago I got, well, not skinny, but more mainstream, size-wise. Skinny hasn’t happened since the Reagan administration (when I had a youthful metabolism, not that of a tree sloth). After slimming down, I waited over a year before donating my voluminous stockpile of fatwear. They were beautiful clothes, too, all styles that helped mask the added weight I was lugging around, sadly. In giving them away, I figured it would be nice if someone in need of them happily found their way into my, um, largesse. I think the very day I dropped them at Goodwill I gained four pounds. Which brings me to another pointer for this New Year’s resolution-minded message: never, ever, ever, ever stop getting on that damned scale. Years ago, I’m pretty sure it was during the holidays, when food and wine seem to just jump into my mouth when I’m not looking, a wise, thin friend urged me not to get on the scale every day. “Oh, your weight can fluctuate by several pounds daily!” she assured me. “Just get on once a week.” Evil Scale So I took this advice to heart. After all, it was from a skinny person. They must know, right? But if you get on the scale one day and weigh two more pounds, well, news flash: wait seven more days and nothing good comes of it. Trust me on this. My weight has fluctuated so much I should’ve been called Yo-Yo. And not the person who’s great with a violin. The person who can’t seem to stick in a healthy pants size to save her soul, that’s me. This time around it was a tumultuous series of life events that kneecapped me. Not that that’s any excuse, mind you, but hey, I am the first to tell you it is really quite easy to stuff your emotions with food; I’m a pro at it. In fact if there were an advanced degree in it, I’d surely have earned one. This time around I stupidly doubled down while outgrowing my wardrobe: I bailed on the gym. For pretty much my entire life, no matter how plump I was, I always, always, always worked out. Whether it was with the Jane Fonda record (yes, I’m dating myself with that reference), Tai Bo, P90X, lap-swimming, obsessive amounts of tennis, hiking, spinning. walking, or anything, I always made time for some form of daily exercise. Feel the Burn... But then I wasn’t being productive, professionally, failing to get in the writing hours I needed. I was dropping the ball, big time. So I couldn’t justify spending time at the gym. My girlfriend and I were just discussing this gym/work dilemma. Because I get my best work done in the morning. But I also get my best workout done in the morning. That inherent conflict means choosing one over the other (I know, I could technically force myself like the grown-up that I am to do one at an inopportune time of the day, but I haven’t, okay?). And so I made the grave mistake of bailing on exercise because I should be writing prolific amounts. But instead I spent a lot of time wrestling with all those stuffed emotions and not doing diddly squat (make that any squats). Occasionally I resumed working out, though didn’t dare show up at the gym because everyone knows you don’t want to be seen at the gym while fat. I got back on my spinning bike at home, until I had a rather weird spinning accident, requiring 16 stitches on my shin. That was enough to kibosh my biking career for a while. I got back into it later in the summer, even biking one day for about 36 miles, which was really fun since we didn’t get hit by any cars, but still, I was feeling guilty for not getting work done. So I have holed up for the past few months writing. The good news: I’ve got my writing mojo back. The bad news: I shudder to witness my reflection in a plate glass window and cringe to see pictures of myself. For sure ain’t no selfie-taking going on for me (while dressed in slimming black). I imagined my zaftig brethren this holiday season wearing my really pretty hot pink raw silk jacket, or that sparkly sequin top, and all those many outfits I gave away, while instead I jammed myself sausage-like into a stretch black velvet pantsuit that somehow escaped my closet purge. I refuse to buy more fat clothes, as it feels like I’m abandoning ship, figuring thin me is a thing of the past. But with my oversized clothes shrinking (they are just shrinking, right?), where to next? I don’t want to be Admiral Perry navigating the unchartered territory of what to do once the fat clothes don’t fit. But new beginnings can start at any time. Sure it feels cliché for that to be with the new year. But now’s as good a time as any, so here’s hoping I’ll eventually be able to give away my latest wardrobe, even though they’re not even cute, just functional. Wish me luck. If not at www.jennygardiner.net, let’s hope Jenny Gardiner is at the gym, rectifying her mistakes.


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Categories: A Family and a Whole Lot of Flesh Wounds, Accidentally on Purpose, Anywhere But Here, Bad to the Throne, Books, Chick Lit, exercise, Gone Tomorrow, humor, I'm Not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship, It's Reigning Men, Jenny Gardiner, memoir, Naked Man on Main Street, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, Slim to None, Something in the Heir, Where the Heart Is, Winging It: A Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me, women, women's fiction