Out With The Old, In With The New

Ask your husband what he's been doing all those nights he claimed to be at the hospital…The aforementioned suggestion would never be welcomed by any woman who'd been married for the better (well, mostly) part of twenty years. But for Kate Hennessey, who was celebrating turning forty by taking a fabulous vacation with her two best friends, the timing was not the best.Does she go, or does she stay?She'll get the answer soon enough. And though her world may be rocked, maybe she can cope better than we think. Because design is her business, after all. You know, changing things around and putting the pieces together in a whole new way….
Содержание:

Out With The Old, In With The New

   

So the big four-oh looms right down the pike

   For each of us, one right after another. Boom, boom, boom. I’m the first to cross that dubious threshold in May. Alex turns right after me in August—

   Turns? That’s horrible. It sounds like one day we’re light and lively and the next day we’re soured milk. I’d never thought of it that way and wish I hadn’t because it gives me yet another reason to dread turning forty. Anyhow, Rainey, the baby of the bunch, is the last to outlive her shelf life. She turns in November.

   And we started the annual girls’ getaway the year of our thirtieth birthdays. So in a sense this year is a double celebration.

   But I can’t go. Because I don’t trust my husband enough to leave him alone for two nights….

Nancy Robards Thompson

   Nancy Robards Thompson has reinvented herself numerous times. In the process, she’s worked a myriad of jobs, including newspaper reporting; television show stand-in; production and casting extras for movies; and several mind-numbing jobs in the fashion industry and public relations. She earned a degree in journalism, only to realize that reporting “just the facts” bored her silly. Much more content to report to her muse, Nancy has found nirvana doing what she loves most—writing romance fiction full-time. Since hanging up her press pass, this two-time nominee for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart struck gold in July 2002 when she won the award. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband, Michael, their daughter, and three cats, but that doesn’t stop her from dreaming of a life as a bohemian writer in Paris.

Out with the Old, In with the New Nancy Robards Thompson

   

From the Author

   Dear Reader,

   I read recently that forty is the new thirty. What does that mean? That forty was considered over the hill and is no longer as old as once perceived? Or is it reflective of a new attitude? That chronological age is irrelevant, and a woman can reinvent herself at any age?

   The latter is the premise of my story Out with the Old, In with the New. When forty-year-old Kate Hennessey discovers her marriage of twenty years is over, she’s faced with the horrifying realization that she gave half her life to a man who doesn’t want her anymore. At first, she worries the breakup means the best years of her life—and all she’s accomplished in that time—are null and void. Learning to stand on her own two feet, she embraces her new path and the opportunity to grow into her full potential.

   I hope you enjoy Kate’s journey of self-discovery. Here’s wishing you a lifetime of love and happiness…and the strength to look deep inside yourself and discover where those qualities live.

   Warmly,

   Nancy Robards Thompson

   This book is dedicated to the transforming

    power of friendship and to my good friends

    Katherine Garbera, Mary Louise Wells,

    Teresa Brown, Elizabeth Grainger, Catherine Kean,

    Debbie Pfeiffer, Robin Trimble, Joanne Maio,

    Carol Reiss, Evelyn Sechler and Christina Mancia.

    Ladies, your friendship makes my life very rich.

Acknowledgments

   First and foremost, I’d like to thank two wonderful

    women—Michelle Grajkowski, my agent, and

    Gail Chasan, my editor. Michelle, thanks for having the

    foresight to get this manuscript

    into Gail’s hands. Gail, thanks for everything.

    I look forward to many years of collaboration

    with both of you.

   Heartfelt appreciation (and a long overdue dinner) to

    Robert Trimble for your sage advice on divorce law (for

    the book, thank God, not for real life!).

   Finally, love and thanks to Michael and Jennifer.

    I couldn’t do this without your love and support.

CONTENTS

   CHAPTER 1

   CHAPTER 2

   CHAPTER 3

   CHAPTER 4

   CHAPTER 5

   CHAPTER 6

   CHAPTER 7

   CHAPTER 8

   CHAPTER 9

   CHAPTER 10

   CHAPTER 11

   CHAPTER 12

   CHAPTER 13

   CHAPTER 14

   CHAPTER 15

   CHAPTER 16

   CHAPTER 17

   CHAPTER 18

   CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 1

    Confession time. I’m not going on the annual girls’ weekend with Alex and Rainey. But how do you tell your best friends you’re breaking a ten-year tradition because you don’t trust your husband enough to leave him alone for two nights?

   It’s embarrassing. Humiliating.

   Rainey would hate Corbin if she thought he was having an affair. And Alex—she’d kill him. Then they’d both rally around me, like a prizefighter’s coaches who were training for the kill.

   I’m not ready to deal with it. Saying it out loud makes it so…real.

   I can hear Alex now. “Kate, if he’s cheating, your staying in town isn’t going to stop him. So you can’t miss our weekend.” And that would inevitably prompt her to add, “If you even think he’s cheating, why don’t you hire a private detective and find out for sure?”

   Don’t think I haven’t considered hiring someone. But for God’s sake, it hasn’t even been a full twenty-four hours since the bomb dropped. I need time to think, to sort out my options and figure out how to deal with the aftermath, should I discover the man I sleep with every night is being unfaithful.

   This ugly jealousy is so new. All I can think of is this time yesterday I trusted my husband. I loved him and was so sure he loved me.

   Right now, I don’t even know my next move. Let me figure that out first. Then I’ll sic Alex on him.

   So instead of leveling with them, I resort to diversionary tactics. “Palm Beach is too stuffy.” I sink into the couch cushions and slant a glance at Rainey. I catch her almost imperceptible eye roll.

   “Come on, Kate.” Alex scowls at me. “You’ve managed to pooh-pooh every suggestion we’ve made tonight. South Beach is too wild. Palm Springs is too boring. Napa’s too far.” She says this in a singsong voice that makes me want to jump out of my skin. “New York’s too… What was wrong with New York?”

   I shouldn’t have come tonight, but after what happened today, I’ve been running on autopilot, trying to regain my equilibrium. Quite unsuccessfully, I might add. So I can’t blame them for being annoyed. I’d be irritated with me, too. Especially since this girls’ getaway is the last one we’ll take as thirty-somethings.

   Yep, the big four-oh looms right down the pike. For each of us, one right after the other. Boom, boom, boom. I’m the first of the three to cross that dubious threshold in May. Alex turns right after me in August—

   Turns.

   Turns? That’s horrible. It sounds like one day we’re light and lively and the next day we’re soured milk. I’d never thought of it that way and wish I hadn’t, because it gives me yet another reason to dread turning forty. Anyhow, Rainey is the baby of the bunch, the last of us to outlive her shelf life. She turns in November.

   We started the annual girls’ getaway the year of our thirtieth birthdays. So in a sense this year is a double celebration—ten years of annual getaways and our foray into the fabulous forties. I guess that makes me a double party pooper.

   “Must we decide this tonight? It’s late.” I stand up and prepare to leave, ignoring the pair of disapproving looks. Rainey levels me with a stare that screams stop being so difficult.

   “Palm Beach is perfect. It has spas and shopping. What more could we ask for? All in favor of Palm Beach?”

   As I pull my car keys from my bag, the two of them raise their hands, voting yes, looking at me with equal parts exasperation and impatience.

   I hitch my Coach bag onto my shoulder. “Okay, fine. Palm Beach. Whatever.”

   At this point, I’ll agree to anything, even though I have no intention of actually going. I just want to leave before the walls close in on me. Later, I’ll think of a plausible excuse to bow out of the trip. Maybe I’ll even tell the truth.

   Ha. The truth. What a novel idea.

   I don’t have to tell them about my suspicions, mind you. The other truth is that my six-year-old, Caitlin, hates it when I go away, which is not very often. So I can’t go because Corbin’s not a good babysitter. He’s a good dad, and Caitlin loves him as if he were a prince. But when it comes to bedtime, she wants me.

   God, that’s lame. They’ll never buy it.

   Well, we’re all adults. Alex and Rainey will understand. Eventually.

   Alex makes a satisfied noise. “This is going to be a blast.” She does a little merengue step. “We’re going to get every imaginable spa treatment known to woman-kind, then we’re going to par-tay and we’re going to shop— Oh, Kate, that reminds me, I still have your pearls. Let me run upstairs and get them before you go.”

   She’s out of the room before I can tell her not to worry about it. Rainey and I stand face-to-face for an awkward moment. I can tell she’s going to ask what’s bugging me. So I drop my purse onto the chair, pick up my champagne flute and carry it to the kitchen.

   She follows me.

   The room is too small for both of us and the pregnant questions wedged between.

   I keep my back to her and wash my glass.

   “Are you all right?” she finally asks. “You haven’t been yourself all night.”

   “I’m fine. Tired.”

   My composure wavers. In my mind’s eye I see hysteria reaching up to trip me, yanking my poise out from under me like an old rug. I have that sense of slow-motion disorientation, like when you see yourself suspended in midair a split second before a hard fall.

   But I’m still standing.

   If I stand perfectly still, not moving or speaking or breathing, I will not go down.

   I will not come undone.

   For a full minute I let the water run over my hands and stare at the vivid cobalt and yellow in the Spanish tile backsplash behind Alex’s kitchen sink.

   My eyes haven’t teared. No surprise. For the past twelve hours, I’ve felt as if I were locked inside a wooden cask of a body, incapable of emotion. Numbed by the hard exterior that’s settled around me.

   Movement reflected in the kitchen window catches my eye. I see Rainey’s reflection. She’s just standing there. Not pushing or needling or prodding. Somehow, without even looking directly at her, I sense she’s reaching out through the murky stillness. I know in that instant I could fall backward, and she wouldn’t let me hit the ground. But I can’t right now. I just can’t.

   I turn to her and say, “I’m fine, Rainey. Really.”

   Alex enters with my pearls. They were an anniversary gift from Corbin. She drops them into my hand, and I get the absurd vision that they’re an abacus tallying Corbin’s transgressions.

   One precious pearl for each sin against our marriage. I’m sober enough to realize I’m just tipsy enough to let my imagination run rampant, but I’m okay to drive. I wouldn’t get behind the wheel otherwise.

   Fingering the pearls, I grab my purse, say good-night and escape into the chilly cloak of moonless night, wishing it would swallow me whole so I wouldn’t have to go home and face my husband.

   During my twenty-minute drive to Winter Park I realize I need to come up with a game plan. I’ve had since ten o’clock this morning when the mail arrived to think about it. Yet I still can’t force myself to go there. What in the world am I going to say to Corbin when I get home?

   “Sweetheart, I received the strangest letter in the mail today. It said, ‘Ask your husband what he’s been doing all those nights he claimed to be at the hospital.’” Then I’ll laugh to prove I’m confident the note’s a prank.

   Then he’ll laugh, and it will become our own private joke. He’ll pull me into bed and make love to me to show me how absurd the letter was.

   We haven’t made love in months. Why would tonight be any different? Especially when I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be overly thrilled about getting his own dinner. When it came time to go out, I fed Caitlin and let her go play at the neighbor’s house. I was in such a fog I didn’t even think about fixing his dinner. I hope I locked the door.

   I can’t think straight for all the bells and whistles sounding in my head warning that something’s rotten in the Hennessey household. If I ignore my gut feeling I’ll be just like all the other pathetic women who know damn well their husbands are screwing around, but pretend they don’t have a clue so they can keep the big house and the fancy cars and the summertime trips to Tuscany. How can they live knowing their whole life is a sham?

   I look at the dashboard clock glowing azure. I now have approximately ten minutes to concoct a plan. Most likely he’ll be asleep. Do I wake him up and confront him? Throw the letter in his face and scream, “What the fuck have you been doing?”

   I shudder. I hate that word. I hate feeling compelled to ask him to account for his time. But most of all, I want him to know I hate playing the fool.

   I could wake him and ask, “So, Corbin, what have you been doing lately?”

   Ha. I can see it now. He’ll blink because he’s sleepy, then he’ll look at me as if I’m an idiot and repeat the question back to me. “What have I been doing lately, Kate?”

   He’ll tick off a list of noble and important deeds. You know, a typical surgeon’s fourteen-hour day. It won’t be what he says that hurts, but how he says it. Especially when he adds his favorite line: “That was my day, Kate. What did you do today?”

   And I’ll say, “Well, Corbin, today I pondered why someone would send me a letter encouraging me to ask you what you do with yourself. But if it were any other day, I’d probably have to stop and think, God, what did I do today? It certainly slipped by fast. When itemized, my list would be just as long as yours, I’m sure. But since I’m just a mom and a typical day for me revolves around the PTA and organizing school bake sales and timing my life to have dinner ready in between running our daughter to two-hour dance classes and peewee cheerleading lessons, I didn’t have time to discover the cure for AIDS and the common cold, much less screw around on you. Certainly not as complex as a doctor’s day, but my life is full.”

   I steer the car off the interstate and as I coast to a stop at the light at Fairbanks and Highway 17-92, I realize I’ve been talking to myself—out loud. There’s a couple in a black Corvette in the lane next to me, but they’re making out, oblivious to my self-banter and my watching them go at it.

   If Corbin does have a girlfriend, where do they rendezvous? A cheap motel? Her place? In the car? I surprise myself at how I can ponder the possibilities so calmly. I suppose the logistics would depend on the bimbo.

   God, who is she?

   Do I know her?

   Someone in his office? The hospital? The country club? Someone I’ve invited into my home? That would be the worst. The champagne bubbles up sourly in the back of my throat. I take a few deep breaths and remind myself this whole thing could be a hoax.

   “A hoax.”

   I say the words aloud hoping they will ring true. But my gut instinct doesn’t buy it.

   Somehow I know.

   I just know.

   The light turns green, and I stomp on the gas pedal. The wheels scream as I lurch into the intersection. There’s something satisfying about the obnoxious sound. Like steam screaming through the release valve on a pressure cooker. I hope the noise startled the kissing couple in the Corvette enough to make them knock noses.

   A few minutes later, I steer my Lexus SUV into the driveway and hit the garage door opener. I wait for the door to lift and notice the glow of the living-room lights seeping through the slats of the plantation shutters, as though a happy family lives here. Maybe Corbin’s still awake. A wave of panic seizes me, and I can’t breathe for a few seconds.

   But I force air into my lungs. I still have no idea what I’m going to say to him, but I decide right then and there I’m not going to make it easy for him. Girls’ getaway be damned. Going out of town with Alex and Rainey would be like handing him a free pass to be with her.

   Whoever she is.

   I pull into the garage, kill the engine and sit there until the door wheezes and squeaks shut behind me. Once closed, the garage is perfectly silent, except for the occasional tick and sigh of the car’s hot engine.

   If I really want to know who she is I can find out.

   The thought makes my heart beat so fast it hurts. I take a deep breath to calm myself, run my hand over the tan glove leather of the passenger seat. I need to touch something tangible, something tactile, to ground me in reality.

   I love this car. It was Corbin’s present to me three months ago for our twentieth anniversary. He picked it out himself. Had it delivered with a big red bow on the hood. Like something you’d see in a television commercial.

   If material gifts were a standard of measure for his love, there would be no doubt. Always generous. A good provider. And a good father.

   Because of that, doesn’t he deserve the benefit of the doubt? Or at least a chance to explain?

   The beginning of a headache buzzes in my temples. I close my eyes and press my fingers against the lids, but it doesn’t help. When I open my eyes again, the dim overhead light casts an eerie yellow glow. Everything looks fuzzy and out of proportion, especially the shadows.

   If I shine a bright light directly into the darkness, will I prove this dread is merely a figment of my imagination?

   As my eyes focus, I see Caitlin’s in-line skates hanging on the Peg-Board next to the kitchen door. Corbin’s golf clubs sit below. My treadmill, slightly dusty, is next to it. Our three bikes are suspended by chains from the ceiling.

   Am I willing to give it all up so easily because of an anonymous letter containing one vague sentence?

   A chill winds its way through my body. Despite the cool January-in-Florida weather, the night air feels clammy and clings to me like a bad omen.

   Okay, I’ll ask him.

   I’ll ask him because I need Corbin to explain this away. Not so I can turn the other cheek while he fools around. I want him to convince me it’s not true for the sake of our family.

   For the twenty years I’ve given him.

   God, that’s half my life.

   I let myself out of the car. As I put my key in the kitchen door, I hear Jack, our yellow Lab, barking before I let myself inside. He jumps up to greet me as I step into the kitchen.

   “Shh, Jack. Be quiet. You’re going to wake the whole house.” I stroke his silky head half hoping, half fearing Corbin will call out to me that he’s in the living room. But he doesn’t.

   The dirty dinner dishes are still on the table along with the remnants of Chinese takeout. I flip off the kitchen light.

   My heels click on the hardwood floor as I walk into the living room. Is every light in the house on?

   “Corbin?”

   The house is so still my words seem to echo back at me. I turn off the downstairs lights and make my way upstairs, which is completely dark by contrast. I push open Caitlin’s bedroom door. Her night-light glows in the corner.

   She’s sleeping on her stomach like an angel child in her pink canopy bed. Long, curly blond hair flows around her. She looks like a princess floating on a spun-gold cloud.

   As far as her daddy’s concerned, she is a princess. Although he wasn’t exactly thrilled when I found out I was pregnant. Caitlin was a surprise. Our son, Daniel, was thirteen when she was born, and Corbin was ready to “have his life back,” as he put it. We were going to travel, and he wanted more time for golf.

   Secretly, I was thrilled to be pregnant again. I’d miscarried three times after Daniel was born. Then I quit conceiving.

   I just knew she’d be a girl. Not that I don’t love my son. I do. I just always wanted a baby girl. And now that Daniel’s away at college, it’s great having someone who still needs me. See, she was meant to be.

   That’s what I kept telling Corbin and, of course, the minute she was born she had him wrapped around her little finger. So it’s been a moot point ever since. I mean what’s not to love?

   She just turned six. It’s a wonderful age. Every age is wonderful, but this one is particularly nice. She’s so sweet, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than be her mother.

   Is that so bad? Does it make me unambitious to find fulfillment in motherhood?

   I suppose I should add wife to that job description. But it goes without saying.

   Doesn’t it?

   I stroke a wisp of hair off Caitlin’s forehead and realize with startling clarity as if I’m staring back through a tunnel of years that mine and Corbin’s relationship went a little off track when I got pregnant. I guess we haven’t had a chance to reconnect as we should have. But you know how it is having a new baby. Since then, life set sail on its own course. Corbin’s practice has just been named the staff physicians for Orlando Magic—the NBA team—and he’s busier than ever at the hospital. Sometimes I’ve felt as if all I can do is hold on or risk falling overboard.

   But now everything’s run aground because of that damned letter.

   My heart aches. I kiss Caitlin’s cheek and linger to inhale her sweet scent, but she stirs, and I pull back so I don’t wake her.

   I walk down the dark hall, into our darker bedroom. I click on the overhead light. Corbin’s asleep on his side. His back is to me. When I sit on the side of the bed, my thigh grazes his body.

   I touch his bare shoulder. He lets out a little snore.

   “Corbin, wake up. We need to talk.”

CHAPTER 2

    I remember a time when a pickup line was defined as a lustful attempt to make somebody’s acquaintance. For the past nineteen years, the only pickup line I’ve been party to is the slow-moving, after-school queue that snakes around the Liberty School parking lot.

   I don’t miss being hit on. What bothers me as I sit waiting for my daughter to get out of school is the fact that I never noticed the incongruous dual usage of the term.

   Pickup line.

   It’s so ridiculous. How could I have missed it?

   It makes me wonder what else I’ve overlooked all these years.

   I trust so freely. I mean, why shouldn’t I? If a person—namely my husband—has never given me reason to doubt him, why shouldn’t I trust him implicitly? It can’t be any other way. A relationship without trust is a derailed train.

   No. Worse.

   It’s a yawning sinkhole that opens its greedy jaws and devours everything that once seemed stable. Without trust, you might as well end it before the relationship gets ugly.

   Because it will. Without trust, sooner or later you’ll end up eating each other alive.

   That’s why when Corbin pronounced the letter someone’s idea of a sick joke, I chose to believe him.

   I had to.

   If you could have seen him, his eyes hooded and heavy with sleep. He propped himself up on his elbow and blinked at the paper I thrust in his face. “What’s this?”

   The overhead light cast shadows on his face, hollowing his cheeks, making his cheekbones appear even sharper. So handsome. What woman wouldn’t want him?

   “I don’t know, Corbin. I was hoping you could explain it to me.”

   The memory seems ancient, as though it happened years ago, but it still shakes me to the core. I move up three car lengths, edging closer, but not too close, to the Volvo station wagon in front of me, then pull the lapels of my navy-blue peacoat closed at my neck and wait in stone-cold silence for the pickup line to inch its way around to Caitlin. The radio’s off because every time I turned it on they were playing songs like “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “How am I Supposed to Live Without You.” When was the last time I heard those ditties?

   I glance in the rearview mirror. The line of cars stretches back to infinity.

   I’m gridlocked.

   Even if I wanted to get out of this line, I couldn’t. If I were in a better mood I might make a wry comparison about how gridlock reminds me of marriage.

   I can’t leave him. I mean, my God, we’ve been married for twenty years.

   Half my life.

   Whoa. I will not waste my energy by contemplating divorce. Corbin’s not having an affair. Period.

   Last night he caved in over the note, as if someone punched him in the stomach. He held his head in his hands and said, “What the hell…? This is bullshit. Kate? You don’t think—?”

   “I don’t know what to think, Corbin.”

   I stood there with my hands on my hips acting like such a bitch—for about thirty seconds. Then all I wanted to do was beg him, Tell me it isn’t true, Corbin. Make me believe this isn’t true.

   But I couldn’t say it because I knew I should either believe in him…or leave him. Asking him to tell me it isn’t true is like admitting I don’t trust him.

   Feeling the sinkhole rumble underneath me, I sit in the midst of pickup line gridlock, stuck in my own personal gridlock because I can’t write off the letter as a hoax. I won’t let myself slide down into the what-ifs of extramarital affair investigation.

   You know—A plus B plus C equals Corbin’s opportunity to cheat. Oh, and remember that time that he should have been home at six, but didn’t get in until eleven-thirty—

   La! La! La! La! La! La! La! I can’t hear me! Don’t want to hear me because my husband is not having an affair.

   That’s better. I lean my head against the cool window. Try on the words for size: I believe him.

   I want to believe in the way he reached out last night, took my arm and pulled me down next to him on the bed.

   “Kate, look at me.”

   He tried to lace his fingers through mine, but I jerked away and traced the burnished gold-on-gold woven into the raw silk of our duvet cover. Until he pounded the bed. “Goddamn it, Kate. Come on. This is fucking bullshit.”

   I pounded the bed, too. “Don’t yell at me, Corbin! This is not my fault.”

   Tell me it isn’t true. Make me believe this isn’t true.

   He held up a hand. Squeezed his eyes shut. Drew in a deep breath through flaring nostrils. “I’m sorry, let’s just start over. From the beginning. Where’s the envelope?”

   The plain white rectangle lay kitty-corner, half on the hardwood floor, half on the Persian rug next to the bed. The white stood out like a surrender flag against a blood-orange sunset.

   Corbin picked up the envelope. Flipped it from one side to the other. Snorted. “Nothing.”

   A quick flick of his wrist, sent the envelope skimming across the polished wood until it dead-ended into the baseboard.

   Then we sat side-by-side in silence. Him—crumpling the letter as if the words would disappear into the black hole of his fist. Me—needing him to say, “I love you. I haven’t been unfaithful.”

   He never said it. When I finally summoned the strength to ask, big, fat, hot tears—bottled up all day—slipped from my eyes, slid down my face and washed away the words.

   He held me until I stopped crying, until I murmured, “Who would do this to us?”

   “I don’t know, Kate, but I’ll sure as hell get to the bottom of it.”

   The Ford Excursion behind me beep-beep-beeps, and I realize the line has moved ahead at least five car lengths. I’m still sitting in the same spot. I give a little wave and pull up. I have to get a hold of myself.

   To keep my mind from falling backward into the sinkhole of doubt and fear, I focus on my breathing, the way they teach us in yoga class.

   Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Believe him. Or leave him. Believe him. Or leave him.

   No! Stay present.

   I drum my nails on the steering wheel. Outside my window the sun is shining through barren trees; the Volvo is still in front of me, the Ford Excursion still behind. Bundled-up children cling to their parents’ hands as they dash between cars toward the sidewalk ready for a brisk walk home; the faint warble of the three-fifteen school bell sounds, dismissing the bus riders—car riders leave at first bell.

   The bell sounds remarkably similar to “Ode to Joy.” Oh. No, wait—that’s my cell phone. Caitlin probably changed the ring again. It’s one of her favorite pranks.

   I grab my purse from the passenger seat. Fumble for the phone. Press Talk just before it switches to voice mail.

   “Hello?”

   “Are your bags packed?”

   It’s Alex.

   “Noooooo—”

   “Well get ready, I’ve booked us a room at The Breakers for the weekend of February seventh.”

   “That’s only two weeks from now.”

   “Right. One of the weekends we all agreed on.”

   Breath in. Breath out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

   “Kate? Are you there?”

   “Yes. I—I just thought you’d choose one of the other options we agreed on.”

   “The Breakers is offering a fabulous spa package that weekend—you know, so close to Valentine’s Day. We’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.”

   A knot the size of Texas moves into my stomach.

   “You’re still going, right?” she asks.

   If I believe in my husband—if I trust him—I should have no reservations whatsoever. Just as I never had any doubt about going away with Rainey and Alex the nine previous years we’ve carried on this tradition.

   “Of course I’m going. I have to let Corbin know.” I hear myself saying the words, but they sound foreign. My heart’s instinct is to protest, but I won’t let it.

   “This is going to be so much fun,” says Alex.

   More awkward silence crackles over the phone waves. I sense Alex searching for the words to ask what my problem is. But there is no problem. No siree. Not with my marriage. So I say, “I’m looking forward to it.”

   “Good. Me, too. I’m going to call Rainey now.”

   I hang up. Slide up two more spaces in the queue. Perform another rapid-fire cadence of steering wheel nail drumming, but it threatens to set my nerves on edge. So I turn on the radio to drown out the silence and pull from my purse the paint chips I selected today for the living room.

   Five shades of beige for Corbin. One perfect blood-red sample called Scarlett O’Hara for me. He’ll never go for it, but I like it. I fan them out as if I’m ready for a hand of six-card draw, study the subtle differences of the beiges, and absently sing along with the radio until it registers that Toni Braxton is wailing about the sadness of the word goodbye and having no joy in her life after her man walked out the door.

   “Unbreak My Heart.”

   Ugggggggh. I used to love that song.

   I swat at the radio as if it’s a hornet about to sting me. The paint chips fly, but the scan button lands on a classic rock station playing a gritty guitar riff. A song I don’t recognize.

   Perfect.

   I ease the car forward. Now, I can see the children waiting on the covered walkway. I bend down and retrieve the color chips.

   Beige.

   Beige.

   Beige.

   Scarlett O’Hara. Nope. He’ll never go for it, despite how he always says, “You’re the designer. Work your magic.”

   He always comes back to beige. And I say, “If you want it to remain the same, then why are we bothering?”

   He says, “No, go ahead. We need a change.”

   I end up giving him the same old same old we’ve had since I began decorating our house twenty years ago.

   Twenty years of beige.

   Oh, dear God, I thought it was what he wanted.

   

   Armed with a cocktail, Corbin’s partner, Dave Sanders, answers his front door and greets us with a hearty, “Heeeeeeey. It’s the Hennesseys. Come in.”

   He takes our coats, slaps Corbin on the back, then pulls me into a tight bear hug, pressing his short, chubby body to mine in a way that makes me squirm. “Kate, you’re gorgeous, as always.”

   His breath reeks of Scotch. Before I can break away, his free hand slithers down my back until he cups my bottom and gives it a little squeeze.

   I draw in a sharp breath. What the—? I try to pull away, but he holds on to me, staring down at my breasts.

   “What are you—about a B cup? My brother can give you a nice set of Ds and then you’d be just about the perfect woman.”

   I can’t believe he just said that.

   “Stop it.” I push away from him, and a wave of Scotch splashes down the back of my silk blouse.

   He laughs.

   I dart a quick glance at his wife, Peg, and Corbin, who are finishing an air-kiss greeting, oblivious to Dave’s unconscionable antics.

   Dave’s moved on into the high-ceilinged living room. I’m left pondering that surely he didn’t mean it the way I’m imagining he did. In all the years I’ve known him, he’s had a certain reputation as a ladies’ man that’s escalated to cheating louse as the practice became more successful, but that’s between him and Peg. Except for a few off-color remarks about my inadequate boobs, he’s never made a pass at me.

   Tonight, he’s obviously soused. Short of causing a scene, I can do nothing but stand there with the sick feeling of having been violated, and greet Peg, who offers me the same glassy-eyed air kiss she gave my husband.

   “Haaaaaai, huuuuuun,” she slurs, the unmistakable smell of gin on her breath, the dregs of a drink in the glass she holds. The ice cubes clink as she steps back, a little unsteady on her feet, and brushes a wisp of short red hair off her pale forehead.

   All this and it’s only six-thirty.

   It could be a very long night, except that I’ve got a theory. One of Corbin’s partners, Mac or Dave, sent the letter. They have to be the culprits. The timing is just too coincidental: The envelope arrived yesterday. The dinner party’s tonight. Hello?

   These forty-something men who play doctor have never outgrown their hazing, frat-boy mentality. My husband is the worst. He had Mac’s brand-new Cadillac towed out of the parking lot to make him think it was stolen. Last year, when Dave turned forty-five, Corbin hired a stripper to come into the office and pose as a patient—feeding Dave’s obsession with big boobs.

   Tonight, I sense my otherwise upright, straitlaced husband, with his Jaguar and season subscription to the opera, is about to get the mother of all paybacks.

   They’re going to laugh about it at dinner. Make a big joke out of it.

   Gotcha, Corb!

   Well, I can take a joke as well as the next person. I don’t know if Corbin’s going to be so forgiving because this really pushes the bounds of bad taste. Will it be enough to curtail these monthly dinner parties?

   Oh, wouldn’t that be a shame.

   I’d much rather it be a joke than to go on worrying and wondering….

   We follow Peg into the living room where Dave holds out a Scotch on the rocks for Corbin and a glass of Chardonnay for me. I can’t meet Dave’s gaze. So I’m glad when the doorbell rings again.

   Dave and Peg answer the door together. A moment later they usher in Joan and Mac McCracken. I wonder if Dave gave Joan the same heinie-fondling, boob-assessing welcome he gave me?

   If he did, it would make it less personal, but I’m certainly not going to say, “Hi, Joan. Did Dave grab your ass, too?”

   What I’m going to do later is tell Corbin. Let him take care of it. I’m not getting breast implants. So Corbin can tell Dave not to mention it again. Not funny the first fifteen times he said it. Now, he’s just running it into the ground.

   Let’s see if Corbin thinks this is as funny as his buddy’s other misdeeds.

   Actually, I need to give Corbin some credit. Funny is not the appropriate word. When he’s regaled me with tales of his partners’ libidinous exploits it’s been more out of a sense of horror than amusement. It started after we bumped into Mac out with a woman-child who looked barely legal. Obviously a date. Joan was in Tuscany for the month. Alone. Well, presumably alone—who knows?

   Peg, Joan and I aren’t close enough to share intimate details like that. Even if I don’t like them very much, I have to admit they’re not stupid women. They have to know their husbands. How could they not? I don’t understand how they can stay with men they know are unfaithful—turn the other cheek and jet off to Europe until the latest bimbette has lost her sheen.

   I’ve always appreciated Corbin’s honesty. After seeing Mac—God, it was before Caitlin was born—Corbin opened up to me. I hated hearing the dirty details, but it made me feel closer to my husband that he would share how much Dave’s and Mac’s dalliances bothered him. As close as they are, he said it was the one area in which he couldn’t relate to them, said it disappointed him that they could look their wives in the eyes and lie.

   I cling to that thought and believe in my husband.

   Bring on the joke.

   I can take it.

CHAPTER 3

    There was no joke.

   Nor a punch line.

   Only the slow-dawning realization that Mac and Dave weren’t the culprits. Someone else sent the letter.

   Some unknown person, who, for some unknown reason, decided she—or he—and it could very well be a he, let’s not jump to conclusions—wanted to mess with the solidarity of the Hennessey marriage.

   So here I stand the morning after, in the kitchen, squeezing orange juice for Corbin’s and Caitlin’s breakfast, pondering who and why and trying to act as if I haven’t a care in the world.

   I’ve never been a good actress. I’m tired and cranky because I lay awake most of last night listening to Corbin snore.

   The orange slips off the juicer, and my hand lands in the sticky, pulpy mess. Oh for God’s sake. It’s mornings like this I wish I could pull a carton of OJ from the refrigerator. But I won’t. I’ve always taken pride in giving my family the best. I rinse and dry my hand, return to the half-dozen orange halves on the cutting board.

   I’m just tired. Everything always seems worse when I’m tired.

   “Corbin?”

   He’s sitting at the table, a bowl of oatmeal in front of him, engrossed in the newspaper. He doesn’t look up from the business section. A prickle of irritation spirals through my veins, and I’m tempted to throw a spent orange hull at his paper fortress. Instead, I toss the peel into the sink.

   “Do you want to hear something funny?” I ask.

   “Mmm…” He folds the paper in half then over again. Still reading, he reaches for a piece of toast on a plate next to his cereal. Absently, he takes a bite.

   I pick up another orange half. “I thought Dave and Mac were the ones who wrote the letter.”

   He lowers the paper and looks at me as if I’m an idiot.

   I shrug. “I thought they were playing a joke.”

   He frowns. “A damn lousy joke. They wouldn’t do something like that. “He sounds irritated, defensive, as if he’d never considered them suspect. The crease between his brows deepens, and he retreats behind his newspaper. I hate the way he shuts down in the middle of a conversation. Because I always have plenty left to say.

   “Yes, Corbin, it is a lousy thing to do. Do you have any idea who did it?”

   “Kate.” It’s more of a sigh than a word. He lays the business section on the table, checks his watch, stands. “Just let it go. Bottom line is I love you. I love our family. I’m not going to do anything to screw up what we have.” He walks over and puts his arms around me. “The only way the letter matters is if we let it matter. So let it go.”

   I sink into him. His arms feel so right around me. This is my place. But reservation seeps in and rakes its cold, bony fingers over every inch of my body, leaving me breathless and slightly nauseated. He’s right, though. I’m sure whoever did this wants a reaction just like the elementary school bully wanted attention. The question is, whose attention does this bully want?

   “You think if we ignore it, it will simply go away?”

   “Will who go away, Mommy?” Caitlin walks into the kitchen dressed for school. She hesitates in front of her seat at the table and looks at Corbin and me.

   He releases me and returns to the table.

   “No one, sweetie. Daddy and I were just talking about—”

   “No one of any consequence.” Corbin tickles Caitlin. “So don’t you worry your pretty little head over it.”

   Her laughter crescendos into high-pitched screams, and he draws her into a snuggly Daddy-hug that melts my heart because it speaks louder than all the words he could utter to convince me of his dedication.

   I shove the orange down on the marble head of the electric appliance. The machine growls as it pulverizes the fruit. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could purge myself of doubt the way the juicer forces the pulp from the orange?

   “What’s consequence?” Caitlin asks, a spoonful of oatmeal poised in front of her mouth.

   “A person of no consequence is someone of no importance,” says Corbin. “Someone who doesn’t matter.”

   I pour the juice into glasses. “A consequence is also the result of your actions. You do something bad, you suffer the consequence.”

   The words slip out before I realize the implication. My cheeks burn.

   Corbin cuts his gaze to me and hesitates before he scrapes the last bite of oatmeal from his bowl. I carry two glasses of juice to the table and set one in front of Caitlin. I hold the other until my husband looks me in the eye again.

   Resolve gleams in his clear azure eyes. A determination that dictates conversation about the letter is over. Okay. If he can still look me in the eye, what else do I need to make myself feel better?

   So that’s it.

   I can believe him, or I can leave him.

   I believe him.

   He reaches up, takes the glass, sips it and raises it toward me with a slight nod. “Thank you.”

   He picks up the paper again. He looks good in his sapphire-blue shirt and yellow tie. The shirt matches his eyes, which are in crisp contrast to his nearly black hair. For a moment I’m transported back to my freshman year at the University of Florida, when we first met. I was working my way through school. He was the carefree frat boy. The cocky rich kid who had the world at his feet. My family is close, but we’re of simple means. Yet out of all the debutantes and sorority girls, the moneyed coeds with deep Southern roots and families with even deeper pockets, Corbin chose me. He used to say, Money can’t buy class, Kate. Either you’re born with it or you’re not. Every single day of our twenty-year marriage, I’ve done my best to make sure he didn’t live to regret his choice.

   As I pull out my chair to take my place at the table with my coffee, I spy the paint chips on the windowsill and pick them up.

   “I talked to Alex yesterday,” I say as I shuffle through the colors. “It’s time for our annual getaway. But I don’t know….”

   He lowers the paper. “This early?”

   “Well, that’s just it. She and Rainey have their hearts set on this spa weekend down at the Breakers. It’s in two weeks.” I shake my head.

   “What’s the date?”

   “February seventh, but it’s too soon. Not enough notice. I’ll tell them to go ahead without me. Maybe the girls and I can plan a trip later this year, closer to our birthdays.”

   He shrugs. “It should be fine. I’m on call this weekend. That means Mac or Dave will be on the weekend you’re away. I’m sure your mother will help out if there’s an emergency.”

   Emergency? What does he expect to happen?

   The words from the letter telegraph in my brain: Ask your husband what he’s been doing all those nights he claimed to be at the hospital.

   

   No.

   Stop it. I will not keep going there. Am I really going to let some unknown person control my relationship with my husband? A man I’ve known for twenty years? “I don’t want you to go, Mommy.” Caitlin frowns up at me, her blond brows knit into a single line across her smooth forehead.

   Corbin reaches out and takes my hand. The paint chips scatter on the table.

   “No, Caitlin, your mommy deserves to do this for herself. Sometimes we forget that she never gets a break.”

   He draws my hand to his lips, kisses my knuckles. The gesture is so sweet, so tender. My eyes mist. I close them until I’m able to swallow the lump in my throat.

   To keep my mind on the positive, I say, “Take a look at these colors.” I nudge the samples toward him. “I’d like to get the living room painted before I go.”

   He picks up the sport section and scrutinizes a photo of an Orlando Magic player scoring the winning point at a recent game. “Whatever you want. You’re the one with good taste.”

   I scoot the Scarlett O’Hara chip toward him. “Okay, then this one.”

   He peers over the top corner of the paper and laughs. “Not in my house. This belongs in a bordello. Besides, isn’t red supposed to excite people? I need to relax when I get home.”

   If he hadn’t been so darn sweet just a short moment ago, I’d argue Scarlett O’Hara’s case. For now, she can wait.

   “I’ll be home after the game tonight. Are you sure you and Caitlin don’t want to come?”

   I shake my head.

   “Awwwwww, Mommy. I want to go.”

   “No, you were too hard to wake up this morning and you have school tomorrow. Another time. A weekend game, perhaps.”

   Corbin stands, kisses Caitlin on the top of her head. “Come to think of it, I’ll be pretty late. After the game, there’s a reception at Harvey’s Bistro for the new general manager. I need to put in an appearance. New management could decide on a new team physician. I need to stake our claim.”

   I steel myself against the queer swirling sensation in my gut. Everything is fine. He will go to his game. I will go to Palm Beach.

   Everything is fine.

   

   Alex and Rainey are surveying the loot from our shopping spree and settling into our luxury suite at the Breakers as I punch numbers on my cell phone. It’s only seven-thirty. Our dinner reservation is for eight, and I want to call home and say goodnight to Caitlin before it gets much later.

   The phone rings. I settle back against the padded headboard waiting for someone to answer, watching Rainey model a new dress she bought in a shop on Worth Avenue.

   Rainey twirls. Alex gives the thumbs-up sign. She doesn’t have kids or a husband—which, she says, is a good thing, given the fact she can’t even hold together a relationship with her mother. They haven’t spoken in ten years. That’s sad. I can’t imagine what I’d do without my mother, but it’s Alex’s life. She says she’s perfectly happy having only to check in with her law office’s answering service.

   Rainey’s only child, Ben, will graduate from high school in May. He probably won’t realize she’s gone for the weekend until she gets back and tries to torture him with photographs.

   Rainey’s a pro when it comes to cameras. She’s by far the most creative of the three of us. She’s argued that point with me on more than one occasion, giving me credit for my “decorating flair.” But my panache, as she calls it, does not hold a candle to what Rainey can create with a lump of clay and the artistic equivalent of a funky manicure set. She’s amazing. By default—and because Alex and I didn’t even bother to bring a camera—she’s the official photographer of the tenth annual girls’ getaway.

   She snaps a shot of me with the phone pressed to my ear. I’m counting the rings on the other end of the line. Seven…eight… A couple more and the answering machine will kick in, but in the nick of time Caitlin picks up the receiver. Her little voice sings, “Hello, Hennessey residence.”

   “Hi, sweetie.”

   “Mommy! When are you coming home? I miss you.”

   “Pumpkin, I haven’t been gone twenty-four hours. How can you miss me already?”

   “I just do. Don’t you miss me?”

   “Of course I do, but I’m having fun, too. We went shopping today and had our nails done. We just checked into our room.”

   “Did you get me a surprise?”

   “I sure did.”

   “What color did you get your nails painted?”

   “Natural.”

   “Just like always. When you get home will you paint my nails pink?”

   “I will. Maybe I’ll even find a special bottle of pretty pink polish to bring home to you.”

   “Ohhhhhhhh! Don’t forget, okay?”

   “All right, sweetie. Can you put Daddy on the phone for a minute?”

   “No.”

   No? My heart kicks against my breastbone, and I sit up and scoot to the edge of the bed. “Why not?”

   “He’s sleeping.”

   What? In all the time I’ve known this man, he’s never napped. “What’s wrong? Is he okay?”

   “I think so.”

   A bad feeling creeps into my veins. Caitlin isn’t a baby, of course, but if he’s sick he should’ve called my mother to come help, rather than leaving her to fend for herself while he slept. I turn toward the window. It’s dark outside.

   “How long has he been asleep?”

   “I dunno.”

   “Have you had dinner?”

   “No, and I’m hungry.”

   I stand up. It’s nearly bedtime. I knew this trip was a bad idea.

   “Take the phone into him and tell him Mommy wants to talk to him.”

   Rainey and Alex have stopped their shopping show-and-tell and are staring at me.

   “He’ll get mad. Just like you’re mad.”

   I take a deep breath and soften my tone. “I’m not mad, honey. I’m concerned about Daddy. And you. I’m sorry if I sounded angry.”

   I walk into the living room, away from my audience. “Honey, put him on the phone, and then I’ll talk to you again before I hang up. Okay?”

   A few moments later, a groggy voice croaks, “Yeah? Doctor Hennessey.”

   “Corbin, it’s me. What’s wrong?”

   He grunts. I picture him sitting up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and running his hand over his eyes and through his hair in one motion. “Oh, Kate. It’s you.” His voice is breathy. “I thought it was the hospital. Oh God… I didn’t mean to sleep so long. I just…passed out.”

   Passed out? I quell the mother tiger urge to tear into him. You don’t pass out when you’re taking care of a child. Staring at the maroon-velvet-striped wallpaper, I silently count to ten and give him the benefit of the doubt. “Are you sick?”

   “No. I was…tired.” His voice tightens on the last word. “I’m entitled to take a nap every once in a while.”

   “I’m not saying you aren’t. But it’s seven-thirty, and your daughter hasn’t even eaten dinner. When you’re caring for a six-year-old, entitlement gets put on hold for the weekend.”

   He snorts.

   The urge to ask if I need to come home wraps around me like a scratchy wool blanket begging me to throw it off my shoulders and onto the table. But I draw it tightly around me and endure the itch.

   “It’s only two days. Come on, you can handle it.”

   The long, drawn-out silence underscores every mile that stretches between us, until I can’t stand it anymore.

   “Corbin, she’s only six. If you have to check out, or pass out or whatever you did, take her to my mother’s house so someone’s looking after her, okay?”

   “Oh, for God’s sake—” He draws in a heavy breath. Lets it out. “You’re right. You’re always right, Kate. I’d better get in there and start cooking. Have fun shopping. Goodbye.”

   “Don’t forget the—” click “—lasagna in the refrigerator.”

   I look at my phone. Call ended.

   He hung up on me.

   Oh! Irritation simmers in the pit of my stomach, threatening to rage into a full boil. I squeeze the phone until my knuckles turn white and stare at it as if it will channel all my anger back to my husband and reach out and slap him. What is his problem?

   A vision of my daughter’s face pops into my mind. We didn’t even get to say good-night. I start to call home again—

   “Everything all right?” Alex asks.

   I jump and turn toward her in one quick, jerky motion, and snap the phone closed. Alex is standing in the middle of the living-room floor, hands on her hips. From the concerned look on her face, I’m certain she heard every word of my conversation. Through the bedroom doorway, I see Rainey seated at the dressing table, touching up her makeup, watching me in the mirror.

   Heat floods my cheeks. I feel like an idiot.

   “Everything’s fine.” I grab my purse off the coffee table and shove the phone inside. “We’d better go or we’ll miss our reservation.”

   Out in the hall the air is cool and carries that old, upscale hotel smell of brass polish and carpet shampoo. Our suite is at the end of the corridor. Three doors down a fortyish man and twenty-something brunette step into the hallway. They don’t see me. Or maybe they do, but they don’t care. He closes the door, draws her to him in a feverish kiss. I watch them shamelessly. His hands skim her slim body, wind their way around to her derriere where they linger, kneading and pulling her into him for the duration of the kiss.

   They laugh, kiss again, coo at each other, and finally walk away, arms entwined, past the other rooms that stretch down the passage like twin rows of soldiers standing at attention, guarding tawdry secrets. Shiny knobs and numbered plates glint in the dim light, but betray nothing of the lovers who grace these halls.

   A voice deep inside me prods and pokes me in vulnerable places. “You know what’s going on, Kate. You know. Now you have to decide if you’re going to turn the other cheek or start opening some doors.”

   

   We get back to the hotel before midnight. I’m remarkably relaxed. Equalized, you might say. Amazing the miracles worked by good friends, a delicious meal and more than a few glasses of Chardonnay.

   Ahh… Medicine to soothe the weary soul.

   I fall onto the overstuffed, floral sofa, let my head loll back into the cushion and close my eyes for a minute.

   “This is exactly what I needed,” Rainey says as she toes out of her sandals. “It’s good for us to get away. It makes our men miss us. And appreciate us.”

   I nod and look at Alex. I see two of her and blink until the images meld into one. My head is spinning. I put my hand on my forehead to make it stop.

   I never drink this much. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. It was either anesthe…a—nes—the—tize—phewwww, say that after several glasses of wine. Anyhow, it was either numb myself or cry in my soup and ruin everyone’s dinner. That wouldn’t have been very nice. Especially given that the girls didn’t even ask about my phone call. Wise women. I like that about them. Good friends. They have a sixth sense that tells them when to prod and when to leave it alone.

   Instead, we talk about tomorrow’s plans—more shopping, the beach, a massage. Then Rainey goes off on her usual hour-long tirade about how her husband pays no attention to her, which I suspect may have been meant as a segue for me to jump in and talk about my phone spat with Corbin, but I don’t cross the threshold. Uh-uh. Not going there. In fact, that little voice that keeps nagging me saying—“You know what he’s doing, Kate. You know.”—I tell it to shut up.

   And then Alex gives Rainey her standard logic against Rainey’s staying with a man who won’t make love to her. “Did you get married to become a nun?” She asked her that.

   It’s kinda funny if you think about it.

   Well, naaaa, really it’s not. It kinda sucks, actually. At least Corbin and I still do it. Well, we used to. It’s been a while. But I don’t want to talk about it. So anyway, after Alex goes off, Rainey starts with her defense of the ups and downs of holy matrimony.

   All this in the span of two bottles of wine. I couldn’t get a word in if I wanted to. All I do is sit, sip and go along for the ride.

   Now, we’re back at the hotel, and they’re all talked out. It’s a good thing, because my head hurts.

   Alex stands up and stretches. “It’s way past my bedtime. I’m calling it a night.”

   “I’m not far behind you,” says Rainey. “Who wants the bathroom first?”

   The two disappear into the bedroom to sort it out. Inertia takes hold of me, and tugs me into a prone position on the couch. Maybe closing my eyes will make the dizziness go away.

   Yeahhhhh…that’s better… Except that all I can see in my mind’s eye is the long double row of doors outside in the hotel hallway and that damned kissing couple a few rooms down. And this time when the man draws back from the embrace, it’s…Corbin who’s grinding himself into the brunette.

   I sit up too fast, which causes my already pounding head to split. I swallow against a wave of nausea.

   My purse is on the coffee table, and I fish out my cell phone, letting my PDA, lipsticks and receipts fall where they may.

   Dialing my home number, I pay no attention to the little voice that warns me that it’s after midnight. Shut up! Weren’t you just saying, “You know. You know.” Well, I’ve had enough of you. Shut up.

   The line rings twice before a young woman answers.

   “Hennessey residence.”

   I’m jolted sober. A coppery taste fills my already dry mouth and bile burns the back of my throat.

   “This is Kate Hennessey. May I speak to Corbin, please?”

   My words are short and enunciated. Much too polite for this woman who’s in my house, answering my phone. I should call her a home-wrecking bitch-slut. Because that’s what she is—

   “Hi, Mrs. Hennessey. This is Jenny Long. Dr. Hennessey had an emergency at the hospital and called me about an hour ago to come in and stay with Caitlin.”

   “Oh.”

   My hand flies to my mouth in an automatic reflex. This young woman, whom I nearly called a home-wrecking bitch-slut, is, in fact, the college girl we call when we need an overnight sitter and my mother’s not available. Why did Corbin call her and not my mother? What about Dave and Mac? One of the moron twins was supposed to be on call this weekend. Why is Corbin at the hospital instead of them?

   Ask your husband what he’s been doing all those nights he claimed to be at the hospital.

   A scream blooms low in my belly and expands, threatening to overpower me. Somehow I manage to ask in a civilized tone, “Hi, Jenny, when did Corbin say he’d be home?”

   “He wasn’t sure. He said he might be late—or early, depending on how you look at it. He said if he wasn’t home by the time Caitlin woke up, I should feed her.”

   I can’t breathe and the walls start to close in on me.

   Not only is the room spinning, but now the floor is dropping out from under me. “Thanks, Jenny.” I don’t know where my voice comes from, but it catches me like a safety net, and I’m grateful for it.

   “Sure, Mrs. Hennessey. If it’s urgent, you can always page him or phone him at the hospital.”

   “Yes, thanks, I’ll do that.”

   I hang up the phone, sick with dread, knowing what I have to do. The longer I put off the call, the harder it’ll be to place. I’m not going to call his cell phone because if he’s not where he’s supposed to be, he’ll know he’s caught. But if I call the hospital and he’s there, I can tell him I felt bad about the way we left things when we spoke earlier, tell him I love him and want to end the night on a better note.

   Yes, that’s it.

   I pull up the numbers stored in my phone and page through the list until I come to Winter Park Hospital. I hit the automatic dial key. My heart pounds so hard I feel faint.

   The automated attendant picks up, and I press O. “Operator, how may I direct your call?”

   I can barely speak, but I manage. “This is Kate Hennessey, Dr. Hennessey’s wife. Would you page him, please?”

   I suck in a breath.

   “Sure. Hold please.”

   A moment later she comes back on the line. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hennessey, Dr. Hennessey isn’t here this evening.”

   Her words are a white-hot jolt, an arrow shot straight through the bull’s-eye of my heart, confirming every inkling of doubt I’ve had for the past three weeks.

   Ask your husband what he’s been doing all those nights he claimed to be at the hospital.

   No!

   Believe him or leave him.

   “I believe he was called in on an emergency. Could you check one more time, please? It’s urgent.”

   I’m shaking. Not a little quiver, but huge quaking shudders racking my entire body. I hold on the line, feeling small and sure that the operator knows how pathetically insecure I am. Yet, I have the mental clarity to wonder what I’m going to say to him if somehow, miraculously, Corbin’s voice comes on the line.

   But deep down I know my husband’s not at the hospital. I have no idea where he is or who he’s with.

   “Mrs. Hennessey, I spoke with the charge nurse and she says Dr. Hennessey hasn’t been in all evening. Have you tried paging him?”

   No. I don’t want to talk to him. I want to know if he’s where he told the sitter he’d be. “That’s a great idea.”

   “May I take a message in case he comes in?”

   I’m slipping, melting from the inside out.

   “No, thank you. I’m out of town. I must have misunderstood his schedule for this evening.”

   “Well then, have a good night.”

CHAPTER 4

    Picture Thelma and Louise chauffeured by Lorena Bobbitt. That’s what we look like as we drive back to Orlando from Palm Beach.

   We check out of the Breakers at two o’clock in the morning after Rainey and Alex discover me collapsed in an inconsolable, sobbing heap.

   I don’t want Rainey and Alex to leave because of me, and I’m perfectly prepared to rent a car and drive myself. They won’t have any part of staying.

   “Whether we come with you or not, the weekend is ruined,” says Alex.

   “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come in the first place.”

   “No, that’s not what I meant, Kate.” She takes me by the shoulders and forces me to look at her. “I know I speak for Rainey, too, when I say we can’t stay here and let you go home to this situation alone. You’re in no condition to drive. Besides, we want to be with you when you catch the bastard with his pants down.”

   I dissolve all over again.

   Rainey murmurs, “Shut up. You’re making it worse.” She sits down next to me on the couch and hugs me. “It’s going to be okay, Kate. You’re a strong lady. You’ll be fine. Until you can stand on your own, we’re here for you.”

   I try to sit up and realize snot is stringing from my nose. I try to wipe it away with the back of my hand. Alex hands me a tissue.

   “God, I’m ruining everything—”

   “You’re not,” says Alex. “We’ll reschedule for another time. Right now, we have more important matters to tend to.”

   Rainey sits with me in the backseat and every so often she reaches out and squeezes my hand. The drive from Palm Beach is taking an eternity, as if I’m stuck in a surreal time warp. Rainey gave me a Valium before we left. I’m sure that’s why everything has a soft-focus, blunted feel. It would be good if we were stuck in a time warp. I wouldn’t have to face him.

   Just when I’ve convinced myself this is a bad dream that will be over soon, Alex hisses something like, “That no-good, dirty, lying, son of a bitch,” and I’m jolted back to the here and now.

   As Alex’s black Mercedes rolls over the endless black ribbon of Florida Turnpike, all I can think of is how Corbin lied to me.

   To us.

   To our family.

   My forehead is pressed to the cool window. The car is eerily silent except for the rhythmic wrrrrrrrr of car wheels spinning over flat highway. Alex doesn’t turn on the radio. We all settle into a companionable silence. The headlights shining across the median hurt my eyes. I squint as another car speeds by. Thank goodness there’s not much traffic at this hour.

   My eyes feel heavy, threaten to close. I’m so sleepy, but I don’t want to sleep, because if I do, the next time I open my eyes we’ll be back in Orlando. If I can only stay awake… It’s the Valium—and the wine and the hour—tempting me to drift…off.

   “Where did you get the Valium?” I ask, not lifting my head from the window.

   “I have a good doctor.”

   This time I can’t distinguish if my silent tears fall because of the way the words good doctor stab at my heart, or because I’m thankful to have these women in my life.

   A while later I startle awake to the sound of Rainey’s voice. “There could be a logical explanation.”

   They think I’m asleep. I was asleep. Damn it, how long did I sleep? I shift my head ever so slightly until I can see Alex’s brown eyes looking at Rainey in the neon-green glow of the lighted rearview mirror.

   My neck hurts, and I long to sit up and rub it, but I don’t move because if I do they’ll stop talking. I wait for one of them to say something, to reveal the logical explanation my life is depending on. There must be something obvious I’ve missed. Please, please enlighten me.

   “Maybe he’s truly been called out on an emergency.”

   Alex answers with dead silence. Her dark eyes look black as they alternately shift from the rearview mirror, to the road, back to the mirror. I get the creepy sensation that I’m stuck in a scene from a bizarre David Lynch movie. Especially when I hear Alex groan.

   Or maybe it’s me.

   Being on this side of the truth feels a lot different than I imagined before I dared let my mind venture into the what-ifs of the dark, lonely place inhabited by scorned wives. Speculating on Corbin’s infidelity was like standing atop a cliff overlooking a tumultuous ocean. Finding out is like falling headfirst and crashing into the waves and rocks below.

   “Why doesn’t she just call his cell phone?” Rainey says.

   “No. That’s the worst thing she could do. She was smart not to. If he’s not at the hospital and she calls him on the cell he’ll have time to concoct some cockamamie story to cover his ass. This way, she can get some answers.”

   The unspoken words good answers or bad answers loom over me like henchmen.

   Alex holds the steering wheel with her left hand and digs in her purse with the other until she pulls out her cell phone. She holds it up. “Rainey, take this and scroll through my phone numbers until you get Hal Washington.”

   The Mercedes swerves a little. It shimmies as Alex returns to her lane.

   “Hey, watch out. Both hands on the wheel.” Rainey takes the phone.

   “That’s why I’m asking you to find the number and dial it for me.”

   “Why are you calling this guy now? It’s three-thirty in the morning.”

   “Believe me, Washington thrives at this hour.”

   “What is he, a vampire?”

   “Close. He’s a P.I. I’m going to get him to tail Corbin.”

   Rainey leans forward and wraps her arms around the passenger headrest. “Shouldn’t you ask Kate if that’s what she wants before you hire a detective on her behalf? I mean, it’s a big deal. And it could be a little pricey.”

   “Washington owes me a favor. Actually, several, but who’s counting? The sooner Kate knows for sure, the better.”

   I sit up. The crick in my neck screams. “A P.I. could also prove whether Corbin was innocent. Right?”

   There’s a beat of silence as Rainey’s head whips around and Alex’s eyes dart to find me in the rearview mirror. I’m not sure whether they’re surprised that I’m awake and listening to their scheming, or dumbfounded that I still harbor hope. I rub my neck waiting for them to answer me.

   “I suppose,” says Alex. “Whatever he’s up to, Washington will find out. So yes, if Corbin’s taking a midnight flower-arranging class, Washington will let you know. Can I call him?”

   The moment of truth. My stomach clenches. Do I really want to know? I’m not sure, but one thing I do know is I can’t go on not knowing. “Sure.”

   Rainey lets go of the headrest and settles into the backseat. She punches in the phone number. “Here, it’s ringing.” She hands the phone to Alex.

   I think Rainey and I are holding our breath in the silent seconds before Alex starts talking. I’m looking out the window again so I can’t see her. We roll past a series of lighted billboards advertising the virtues of Yeehaw Junction, the turnpike exit before Kissimmee. We’re twenty minutes or so outside of Orlando. My stomach accelerates from clenching to pitching as I realize the moment of truth is nearly staring me in the face.

   What next? If I go home and he’s not there, I’ll have to explain to the babysitter why I’m back.

   Oh God, she’ll know.

   I can’t go to the hospital. It would be humiliating to walk in and ask if they know the whereabouts of my husband in the wee hours of a Saturday morning.

   Alex holds the cell phone away from her. “Kate, can you meet with Hal at ten in the morning?”

   “Okay.”

   “Good. Ten it is. My office. See you then.”

   I glance at my watch and realize that’s only a few hours from now.

   Alex hangs up and tosses the phone onto the passenger seat. “What do you want to do when we get into Orlando?”

   Go to Disney World? Shop the designer outlet malls? Catch my husband in bed with another woman? Oh, the endless possibilities. “I don’t know what I want to do. I just know what I can’t do. I can’t go home, and I can’t go to the hospital.”

   Rainey pats my hand.

   “But we need to see if Corbin’s at home,” says Alex. “Chances are—now bear with me, this is worst-case scenario, chances are if he’s gone off with someone, he’s not going to be back yet.”

   “I don’t know,” says Rainey. “Don’t you think he’d try to sneak back in and get rid of the sitter before Caitlin wakes up? Because Caitlin will tell Mommy.”

   “That’s a good point,” says Alex. “It should be interesting to see if he tells you he brought in the sitter. Would be a good way to see if he’s forthcoming with information. If he tells you up front, then maybe he’ll have a logical explanation to go along with it.”

   I nod. A crazy mixture of hope and fear meld inside me.

   “It’ll be a good gauge to see what you’re dealing with,” Rainey says.

   Alex steers the car off the turnpike, pays the toll and merges onto Interstate Four. “Okay, let’s make a plan.”

   

   The house sleeps dark and quiet. Just as it should in the five o’clock Saturday morning dusk. The only thing out of place is the red Honda Civic parked in the driveway behind my garaged Lexus.

   Jenny’s car.

   I love this house—its old-world Mediterranean charm, the overgrown live oak between us and the neighbor’s that shelters us like protective arms, the rolling lawn that stretches to the street like green carpet.

   Before we bought it, Corbin made such a production of showing me the place. “Close your eyes,” he’d said before we turned onto Via Lugano. “Don’t peek…. Okay, now open them. I found your dream house, Mrs. Hennessey.”

   “Stop and let me out,” I say.

   Rainey grabs my arm as if she fears I might jump out before Alex comes to a complete stop. “You’re not going in there.”

   I shake my head. “I want to see if his car’s in the garage.”

   “What?”

   “Why?” They say in unison.

   “That’s the sitter’s car, right?” Alex says. “Honey, he’s not home.”

   I nod. I don’t know why I want to check. I just have to see for myself that his car’s not there. “Maybe he’s home—”

   “Is he sleeping with the babysitter?” Rainey narrows her eyes.

   “Jenny?” The possibility jolts me. I hadn’t even considered it. “No. No way. I thought that maybe…” Both of them are staring at me, patently horrified, as if they’re afraid I’m going to do something to harm myself. “I don’t know. Maybe he just got home?”

   “If that’s the case,” says Alex, “then we’d better get out of here fast, because Jenny, or whatever her name is, will walk out any minute and blow our cover.”

   I fish in my purse for my keys. “Then pull down the street a little. I’m going to let myself in the side garage door and have a peek.”

   I hop out of the car, take three steps and my foot lands on a small pebble in the street. I lose my balance and turn my ankle.

   It dawns on me that I’m still wearing the little black dress and strappy sandals I wore to dinner last night. God, that seems like aeons ago. Why didn’t I change clothes before we left? Come to think of it, I hope Alex and Rainey got my suitcase, because I have no recollection of packing it or putting it in the car.

   My ankle throbs, but I ignore it and glance up and down the street looking for any neighbors who might be lurking in the predawn darkness. The air smells of winter and has that cold, dewy quality that rains on Florida in the middle of the night instead of blanketing the ground with frost. I shiver.

   All I can see is the glowing red taillights of Alex’s car parked in the street two houses down. If the neighbors see me getting out of a strange car dressed like this at this hour, it will look bad. When they hear that Corbin and I are divorcing, they’re going to think I’m the one who cheated.

   Anger merges with despair, and tears brim at the thought of—divorce. It’s like a well-landed punch to the gut. I want to throw myself down on the carpet of grass and bawl, but instead, I limp as fast as I can—ouch, my ankle really hurts—up the driveway to the garage door on the side of the house.

   I must be in more of a stupor than I realize, because it’s only after the burglar alarm blares that I remember the only door you can enter without setting off the system is the front door.

   “Oh shit!”

   My dog, Jack, is barking and throwing himself against the door so hard, I’m afraid he’ll break through. In a matter of seconds, the neighbors are going to look out to see what the racket’s about, and the police are going to arrive to find me breaking into my own house.

   I do what any person in this situation with half a brain would do—I run.

   Excruciating pain be damned, I run as fast as I can to Alex’s car, turning the same ankle twice more before I jump in, and we speed away like criminals.

   Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.