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By Lisa Carter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Lisa Carter
All rights reserved.
Part of her wasn't surprised by what she discovered in her husband's coat pocket. In some ways, Alison felt relieved to know the truth.
Her hand tightened on the photo. She took a deep breath, the pain of betrayal stabbing at her lungs. Her chest ached with the hurt searing her heart, the effort not to fall apart overwhelming her.
But in spite of the conflicting thoughts racing through her mind, Alison relaxed her fist, smoothing the crumpled photograph of her husband, his arm around a woman in a black, old-fashioned cloche hat. She squinted in the early afternoon light, trying to make out the details. But the woman had averted her face, burying her head into Frank's chest.
Alison didn't think she knew this woman although it was hard to tell anything about her as she had both of her arms clasped around Frank's waist, pinning him as effectively as a bug on the page of an insect collection.
Make that a worm collection.
She suspected this woman was one in a long line of dalliances in which Frank had indulged, carried on in cities all over the United States, thanks to his job as a pilot with North American Air, based at the Raleigh-Durham airport.
Noting a sign in the photograph, Bay Town Suites, she stalked out of the bedroom to Frank's office. Touching the computer screen, she did a quick Internet search for the location. She wasn't the total idiot Frank liked to believe.
Fifteen minutes later, she had her answer. The hotel was located in a seedy section of San Francisco, away from the more touristy and frequented areas Frank's colleagues might be apt to visit.
Settling into the black leather desk chair, she tried to remember when Frank last made a run to San Francisco. A month ago, he would've needed the raincoat in the photo for the cool, dampness of San Fran.
How could Frank have done this to her? To their children, Claire and Justin? Anger rolled like hot, crashing waves just below the surface. She'd known something was up with Frank. He'd been less cocky, his mind preoccupied, unwilling to make eye contact, his acerbic tongue quiet for a change.
Unable to bear looking at the photo again, she tucked it into the pocket of her trousers. Restless, she made her way to the kitchen. The children would be home from school soon. Taking carrots out of the refrigerator for their snack, she caught sight of the family picture-stuck to the front of the fridge-made last summer on a Caribbean cruise.
Frank, in his favorite blue polo and khaki shorts, leaned against the ship's rail with his arm securely around her like a big cat toying with his captured prey. She'd resisted, trying to pull out of his stronghold. Sunlight glinted off the red tints in Frank's auburn hair. His Arctic blue eyes gazed at the camera intense and as confident as a flag on the Fourth of July. She never allowed herself to vent her anger, but the desire to strike back and punish terrified and electrified her, the violent turbulence stretching her nerves taut. She took a few deep, cleansing breaths and then a few more.
She couldn't fall apart. She had to think. Frank wasn't going to get away with it this time, so help her God.
If only she could believe in God at a time like this.
A key turned in the lock at the front door. Voices called.
Claire and Justin erupted into the kitchen, grappling for snacks at the counter.
As fourteen-year-old Justin stuffed a handful of baby carrots into his mouth, he came around the counter to give his mother a bone-crushing hug. She closed her eyes, smelling the lingering aromas of school, gym socks, and to her surprise, a faint trace of aftershave.
He took a seat at the kitchen island with carrots and dip beside his Algebra II book, his scuffed and worn book bag on the hardwood floor at his feet. "What's for dinner, Mom?"
She rinsed her hands, wiping them with the small hand towel she kept next to the soap. "Probably chicken." She pulled out her wooden chopping block.
Claire groaned, her head falling forward on her arms. "It's always chicken."
Her hair hung long, its color the same auburn hue as Frank's. She'd also inherited that beautiful rose complexion the Irish-or, in Frank's case, the Boston Irish-were prone to.
"Chicken is healthy." She'd reminded Claire so many times, her response felt automatic.
Claire rolled her big blue eyes with great dramatic effect and made gagging noises.
Alison eyed her daughter. "Maybe if you want more variety you should start doing some of the cooking yourself."
Claire frowned, narrowing her eyes. "When's Dad going to be home?" "His flight gets in at six."
Claire flipped her hair behind her back. "He's probably tired of chicken, too."
Hitting too close for comfort, Alison turned her back on her daughter, chopping the fresh herbs she would put into the chicken recipe. Frank had been tired of a lot of things for a long time.
Better to keep the anger intact for Frank instead of unloading it on her teenage daughter. For the first time since marrying Frank, Alison questioned what she wanted to happen next. Could she summon the courage to demand her rights for once and divorce him? Should she?
Divorce was a scary word. Or, was it the thought of being alone? She'd married so young, she'd never been alone.
An image of her younger self, standing over her father's grave, flashed through her mind. Going from her father's house to Frank's, she never had the opportunity to manage her own finances. She had no idea how to file an income tax return or open her own checking account. She'd never held a real job.
"Your real job," Frank would say, "is to be my wife."
She couldn't ignore this by burying her head in the sand. Was this how her dad coped for all those years with her mother's drunken, promiscuous behavior, by pretending it, the elephant in the room, didn't exist?
Alison clenched her jaw. Frank wasn't getting off the hook this time. She had her children's future to consider despite the fact she'd like to smack that smug smile right off his arrogant ...
Gentle-natured like her dad, she walked away from a fight. Most of the time she ran.
She imagined the hurt that would scar Claire and Justin's lives forever, like so much notepaper-once torn into pieces-never easily repaired. She fought the urge to tear the photograph into a million pieces and pretend. Like father, like daughter.
Grinding her teeth, she bore down on the knife in her hand. The pungent scent of basil filled her nostrils.
Not this time.
"How much homework do you two have tonight?" She'd learned over the years not to ask if they had homework but simply how much.
Justin shook his wavy brown hair out of his eyes. "About an hour's worth of vocabulary. I hate English." He was a boy who liked to tinker with engines and computers, not words.
Claire rolled her eyes. "Tell us something we don't know."
A tiny smile quivered on Alison's lips, easing some of the tension. "And you, Claire?"
Her daughter dangled the lavender sandals on her feet as she balanced on the stool. "A little English lit and history. Nothing I can't handle. But there's not too much I find I can't handle."
An acrid taste filled Alison's mouth.
Justin responded before she could, patting Claire on the head like an Irish setter. "You know what they say about pride, my ever humble big sister."
"What's that, stinky little brother?"
Justin laughed, walking out of the kitchen with his notebook under his arm. "Pride bites the dirt the moment you trip over it and fall on your face."
She looked at her daughter. Like father, like daughter?
Not this time. Not if she could help it.
Mike Barefoot hated grocery stores. He hated the sight of love-struck young newlyweds too besotted with each other to notice they were blocking the aisle. Grocery stores should be like his former army missions in the Gulf. Get in, target your objective, and get out.
Instead, a preschooler with a miniature-sized cart plowed over his toes. He blinked and clenched his jaw to keep from cursing.
"Sorry." The child's mother wore an expression as overburdened as her cart. A toddler stuffed chubby fistfuls of crackers into a mouth surrounded by a none-too-clean face. The mother also lugged a prostrate infant, slung onto her back, cradleboard-style, like his Cherokee ancestors.
"Tell the nice man you're sorry for hurting him, Billy." She shoved her one mobile offspring forward. The pint-sized cart's back wheels ran over his other foot.
He gritted his teeth.
Billy scowled, his eyes narrowed into slits. "Sorry."
Great. Give it fifteen years. He'd be arresting this one for serial murder.
Mike balanced the green wire basket over his forearm and sidestepped the freak show. All he'd wanted was a TV dinner, the one time he wanted a home-cooked meal and not takeout. Why did the store change up the products on the aisles every time he dropped by? Not that he dropped by often. Fast food was an American way of life for a reason ... because it was fast.
He dodged a couple of college boys toting large cartons of beer to the cashier-might be wise to let Traffic be on the lookout for that particular frat party. He sidled past a Female with a smile the size of an alligator-and yes, noting those rapier-length nails, a female with a capital F. Did he have "lonely and desperate" tattooed on his face? That Female was a man-eater. He'd stake his grandfather's farm in the Blue Ridge on it.
For crying out loud, couldn't a guy get some dinner and a little peace? After the totally uncalled for and totally unexpected public tantrum of his last so-called girlfriend-he'd forgotten to call and cancel dinner when a murder/suicide thing happened, but he'd been busy at the time-he was wise and wary now when it came to women.
A thin, liver-spotted hand tapped him on the arm. "Young man?"
He gazed down into the cherubic face of an elderly woman.
"Would you be so kind as to hand me a can of green beans?" She gave his arm a playful squeeze. "I don't know why the manager insists on placing items so high on the shelves."
Inbred politeness-the cultural curse of the Southerner-and his granny's former training kicked in. "Yes, ma'am." His 6'4" frame had served him well, whether on the football field or coming to the rescue of elderly ladies. "I'd be happy to help you."
His former sour mood vanished, warmth pervading his being. He could almost hear the echoes of his granny's determined Sunday school efforts. The best way to stop feeling sorry for yourself was to help somebody else. The oneness of humanity—
The old lady rammed the can against his chest, the beatific smile erased. "The French-cut beans. Are you stupid or something?"
"Or something," he growled, handing her another can, French-cut this time. So much for the training of childhood. He wondered as he watched her scuttle away without so much as a backward glance-much less a thank-you-if there was anything he could charge her with.
Obstruction of a police officer on a grocery run? Disrespectful and disorderly conduct toward an officer of the law in North Carolina? Assault against a bona fide Raleigh homicide detective? The sharp metal can against his ribs had hurt.
He'd bet his granny's prize-winning apple pie there were bodies buried in that old broad's backyard. His stomach rumbled at the thought of pie. Where did they hide TV dinners-and pies-in this warehouse they called a grocery store? What he'd give for a slice of granny's pie. Or a glimpse, just one more time, of her laugh-lined face.
Mike needed to go home. His real home, not the apartment where he parked his clothes. It had been way too long. He missed the rainbow quilt of rhododendrons on the mountainside. The silvery flash of trout in the stream. The haunting hoot of the owl that lived in the rafters of the barn.
No home to go back to, gone with the death of the grandparents who'd raised him. His only living relative-his niece, Brooke, whose tuition bills cluttered his home office-would be away at school until summer break.
As he yanked open the freezer door, the air-conditioning hit him in the face like a blast of ice. He reared. He'd been in morgues less chilling.
The cell phone in his front pocket vibrated. Letting the freezer door slam shut, he wiggled the phone out and scanned the number. Dispatch. With the department shorthanded, following his partner's delivery and subsequent maternity leave, he was on call 24/7.
So much for a home-cooked dinner. So much for a quiet evening.
Murder never took a night off.
* * *
The dinner hour had come and gone. Frank was still a no-show. With their homework done, baths taken, and clothes ironed and laid ready for the early alarm of high school, Justin and Claire were as tucked into bed as you could tuck teenagers.
Frank had done this before. The kids knew they'd see him when they saw him. But if he thought he could outlast her this time, Frank had another thought coming. Alison jumped at the shrilling of the phone and glanced at the caller ID. It was Val, her best friend and confidante since college, who was never one of Frank's biggest fans. She started to pick it up, then reconsidered, letting her hand fall to her side.
She'd have to fake it or Val would know right away something was wrong. And once Val got a hold of that, she'd be like black spot on roses until Alison cracked and told her everything. She squelched the urge to pour out her soul.
Not just yet. Val might tell her something she didn't want to hear. Like what God would want her to do.
She schooled her features into a mask of calm before she picked up the phone as if Val could see her through the telephone wires. She imagined her thirty-something friend reclining on the sofa in her den, her feet up and over the armrest, running ever-busy fingers through her crop of short brown curls, rumpling them in the process.
"Ali? The house is ours!" Val gushed. "We are the new owners of the two-story brick Colonial only five minutes from you."
She waited a beat too long.
"What's Frank done now?"
They'd known each other far too long for secrets.
"I can't talk about it until I've spoken with Frank tonight, but I promise I'll call you tomorrow." Her voice wavered.
A silence. She used the time to get control of the sudden unexpected tears she hadn't known were hovering on the edge of her eyelids.
"If you need me or Stephen ..."
Did Val imagine that kind of thing went down over here? Frank preferred to wound with words, not fists. Words weren't as visible
She managed a weak laugh. "No worries. Nothing like that."
"At the risk of your continuing scorn through every crisis of your life," Val sighed, "I only bring this up because I care."
"Continuing crises, huh?" She laughed with genuine mirth this time. "You make me sound like Scarlett O'Hara."
"You will be in my prayers all night. If I can do anything for you ..."
"Whatever works." She replied to Val's gentle prodding. Val never shoved her religion-correction, Val called it her relationship with Jesus Christ-in anybody's face. Val understood all too well why Alison felt so estranged from God. Val had been the only one there with her on the worst day of her life.
"You better not forget to call me when you get a chance. Remember I'm always in your corner and so is God."
Clicking the phone off, Alison wondered why everyone abandoned or betrayed her in the end. Except for Val. And Val would be the first to tell her everyone deserved a second chance.
But a sixth chance, or a twelfth?
The beginnings of a small, secret smile lurked at the corners of her lips. If Frank refused to cooperate, she would make sure the entire community knew every sordid, despicable detail of his miserable life.
She quashed the thought there might be a less brutal, wiser way to handle things.
At first, he would deny her allegations. Then, he'd rage, declaring she didn't have the guts to go public. Frank's problem, she reflected not for the first time, was he never knew when to quit, to leave it alone and fight another day.
But she knew what moved Frank, what got him up in the morning. With a certainty grounded on Frank's overweening pride, she had him.
And he would hate her for it.
Alison could hear Val's gentle voice in her ear reproving her.
So what if he hated her?
Kicking off her flats, she curled up on the loveseat in the front room with its excellent view of the street. She was tired—probably what Frank was counting on—but everything that would make life worth living depended on her not giving in this time. She reviewed in her mind the events of the last few months, every put-down, every argument.
Excerpted from Carolina Reckoning by Lisa Carter. Copyright © 2013 Lisa Carter. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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