Married to a Stranger: A Novel

Married to a Stranger: A Novel

3.8 7
by Patricia MacDonald

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A psychologist in an adolescent crisis center, Emma Hollis loves her work; she also loves charming journalist David Webster, who swept her off her feet at a dinner party six months ago. Now she's carrying David's child and half expecting him to flee -- but David surprises and delights her further by proposing marriage. After an impromptu wedding, the couple retreat to… See more details below


A psychologist in an adolescent crisis center, Emma Hollis loves her work; she also loves charming journalist David Webster, who swept her off her feet at a dinner party six months ago. Now she's carrying David's child and half expecting him to flee -- but David surprises and delights her further by proposing marriage. After an impromptu wedding, the couple retreat to a rustic cabin in New Jersey's secluded Pine Barrens. But while David is out gathering firewood, a masked attacker assaults Emma with an axe, intending to kill. In the shock and pain that follows, Emma refuses to believe the police are calling David their prime suspect. But her life may depend on looking at her husband in a new and suspicious light....

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In MacDonald's sixth novel, a smotheringly melodramatic mix of romance and suspense, 26-year-old psychologist Emma Hollis embarks on a nightmarish journey that begins with small glitches that raise doubts on the day she marries freelance writer David Webster. Things take a more serious turn during their honeymoon in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. After David goes out to chop wood for their cabin fire, a hooded figure attacks Emma with an ax. Though seriously wounded, Emma is saved by a passing hunter who loses his life protecting her. Where was David? Was he the attacker? Emma realizes that aside from his looks and the wonderful sex, which has resulted in her pregnancy, she knows little about her new husband. MacDonald (Stranger in the House) offers a handful of suspects, but time and again David emerges as the likeliest one. Suspend disbelief and MacDonald delivers plenty of suspense, unlikely twists and a resolution of puzzling uncertainty. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
MacDonald's latest matron-in-distress is a bride who fears that her bridegroom is the man who nearly killed her and intends to try again. Although Burke Heisler, the psychiatrist who runs the New Jersey clinic where Emma Hollis works, has made it painfully clear that he doesn't reciprocate her crush on him, things have worked out better for Emma than for her boss. Burke's marriage to Emma's old roommate, mercurial poet Natalie White, has ended with her suicide, but his introduction of Emma to his old friend, freelance writer David Webster, has led to a whirlwind romance, a welcome pregnancy and a wedding. Hours after the nuptials, however, Emma's idyll ends with shocking suddenness at her honeymoon cabin in the Pine Barrens. While David's stepped out to chop firewood, she's attacked by a masked stranger wielding an axe. She and the baby she's carrying survive the assault, but a providential hunter who comes to her aid isn't so lucky. On top of her physical injuries and her psychological trauma, Emma has to deal with the broad insinuations of Lt. Joan Atkins, the cop who's convinced that David wanted Emma's money but didn't want to wait for it. Can Emma really trust the man who swears he hasn't been to the cabin since he was a child even though a witness has placed him there a few months ago, a man who keeps his desk drawer locked and lies about the reason, a man whose sudden disappearances coincide all too neatly with the continuing attacks on her? MacDonald (The Girl Next Door, 2004, etc.) stocks her cast with other guilty-looking parties, from the oily second husband of Emma's mother to a disgruntled father convinced his daughter's death from anorexia is Emma's fault. And althoughAtkins never considers female suspects, there are plenty of them as well. Sturdy variations on an old theme, short on realism, long on expertly frayed nerves.

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Gallery Books
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Married to a Stranger

A Novel
By Patricia MacDonald


Copyright © 2007 Patricia MacDonald
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743269599

Chapter Four

"I'm gonna have to make you quit driving," said David.

Emma opened her eyes and yawned. "Where are we?" she said.

"Almost there. Every time you get into a car these days you fall asleep. I'm not sure it's safe to let you behind the wheel anymore."

Emma smiled and sat up. "It's true. It's the pregnancy. I'm always sleepy. Although I usually can stay awake when I'm behind the wheel."

"Usually?" he said with disbelief in his deep, languid voice.

Emma laughed. "Hey, it's not your average day. I got married a few hours ago. It was a little bit exhausting."

She revisited a few of the day's events in her mind's eye. After the ceremony, the buffet lunch, the toasts, and the wedding cake, Emma had run back upstairs, removed her gorgeous dress, and squeezed into her jeans, which she could now just barely button, a long-sleeved thermal Henley shirt, and a down vest. She had pulled her shining, honey-blond hair up under a baseball cap, although a few curly tendrils fell loose around her face. She and David had escaped to their car in the obligatory shower of rice and good wishes.

Twenty minutes out of town Emma had confessed that she'd been too nervous to eat a bite at the wedding. David admitted that he had not eaten either. They got off the highway and took a scenic detour, stopping at a truckers' diner. Thehostess seated them in a booth at the back, where they relaxed over a couple of hamburger platters. They got back on the road feeling full and, in Emma's case, pleasantly drowsy.

"All in all," she said, "I'd say it was a success."

"I think so," he said. "You looked incredible. I thought the other men there were going to fall over at the sight of you."

"The other men? What about you?"

He gave her a sly grin. "Oh, baby, you know about me."

Emma grinned. Then she took a deep breath and pulled down the brim of her cap. "I'm just so sorry about that business with the prenup."

David shook his head. "Don't be. Rory was looking out for you."

"Rory," Emma said disgustedly, shaking her head.

"I think he does care about you in his own weird way. Anyway, I told him I'd sign it."

"Well, I told him I wouldn't. We don't need that," said Emma firmly.

"It's your decision," said David.

"My mother agreed with me. She said we needed to start our marriage with hope and trust. I thought that was kind of nice."

"I agree with her," he said.

"Even though her own husband can't be trusted," she said.

"You didn't mention that to her today, I hope," said David.

Emma frowned. "No, of course not. She was happy today. I wasn't about to ruin it for her. Although I'm going to have to deal with this when we get back. I can't sit on this secret indefinitely. But not today. She's always dreamed of this day. And she was so thrilled. Actually, both our mothers seemed happy," Emma said.

"Well, you heard my mother," David said. "She was sure I was not the marrying kind." He was silent for a moment, and Emma saw the frown in his eyes. She wondered what was making him frown.

"I'm glad you decided to become the marrying kind," she said.

His handsome face broke into a sweet smile. "Me too. You ready for our camping trip?" he asked, abuptly changing the subject.

"It's not a camping trip," protested Emma. "There's a cabin, running water, electricity. And a fireplace. It's gonna be great."

"A pregnant woman in the wilds of New Jersey," he teased.

"Oh come on. The phrase 'wilds of New Jersey' is an oxymoron," said Emma.

"You look cute in that outfit," said David. "Just like a Piney!"

"Thanks. I guess," said Emma. Glancing in the car's sideview mirror, Emma saw herself dressed for the woods, her face burnished by the sun's weakening rays. The perceived wisdom about pregnancy was true. Or was it the glow of being a newlywed? Her skin had never looked better, and her blue-gray eyes looked softer than they ever had.

She held up her left hand and examined her wedding band. It too glowed in the light of the sinking sun.

David glanced over at her. "You like that?" he asked gently.

They were husband and wife, starting out on their life together. She felt as if she would burst with happiness. "I like it."

"Good," he said.

She gazed out the window. "It's gorgeous around here," she said.

David nodded. The November afternoon was golden, shafts of slanted light piercing the forests that surrounded the highway. "It really is remote here. You'd never believe you were an hour from Clarenceville."

"I never thought when I met you that you'd turn out to have this L.L. Bean side to you. You seemed like the kind of guy who would never leave New York."

"I'm full of surprises," he said.

She sat back in the seat and smiled, remembering. From the first day, he had surprised her. After their impulsive night of passion in his New York apartment, she had fully expected that he would be in a rush to get rid of her, wanting his privacy back immediately, and she was fully prepared to put her clothes on and head for the train back to Clarenceville. Instead, he woke her up with fresh bagels and coffee and insisted on taking her to a street fair in Little Italy, where he bought her a cameo ring. After a brief stop for a reading of sonnets in a bookstore café, and ever conscious of not wanting to overstay her welcome, Emma suggested that it was time for her to head for the train station. He had turned to her with a puzzled look in his eyes. "No, don't go," he said.

She could remember how her whole body had tingled as she'd met his gaze. How they had rushed back to his apartment and fallen back into his bed. Their love affair had been a heady, dizzy ride. But this marriage was the biggest surprise of all. From that first day they had lived for the moment, and now, suddenly, they were married with a baby on the way.

Was it all too soon, too quick? she wondered. A moment's doubt fell across her happiness like a cloud over the sun on a tropical isle. And then, just as quickly, it was gone. David was not a man bound by convention. It was what he wanted. What they both wanted. And you can still live in the moment, she thought. This is your wedding day. You are starting out on life's great adventure. Enjoy it, she thought. She began to relax and take in her surroundings again.

The deepening woods filled her with a sense of mystery and excitement. Her favorite vacations had always been camping trips. She and her father would visit national parks and go backpacking, hiking, and swimming by day, making campfires and stargazing at night, while Kay would gather up a stack of books and spend a few days at the Canyon Ranch spa. It was something special that Emma had shared with Mitchell Hollis. Now she was going to share it with David -- a love of roughing it, of being out in nature.

"Oh, look, David! There's the river," she cried. "Oh, it's gleaming. It looks so beautiful. Is that where we're going to be canoeing?"

David peered out the windshield. "Yeah, I guess so. We're almost to the cabin."

"How can you remember the way after so many years?" she said.

David hesitated. "I don't know. I guess I'm a born scout," he said.

"How many years has it been?" she asked.

David shook his head. "I can't remember. A long time."

They rode along in silence for a few minutes, each one looking around at the strange, beautiful woods they had entered. The car jounced along on the dirt and gravel for about half a mile until they came to a clearing. Set in the clearing was an actual log cabin, although not of colonial vintage. It was still faintly russet colored from the red cedar lumber that had been used to build it. The cabin had a fieldstone chimney and a set of steps with wooden railings leading to the front door. A small shed and a large woodpile stood off some hundred yards from the front steps. A canoe was resting upside down on a pair of sawhorses. The gleam of the river could be glimpsed from where they parked the car.

Emma opened her door and jumped out. "Oh, David, this is precious. This is great!" she said.

"You know, for a rich kid, you are so easy to please," he said coming around to her side of the car and putting an arm around her waist.

"Promise me that we can sleep in front of the fireplace, even if it isn't in the bedroom," she said.

"It's our wedding night. We can do whatever your little heart desires," he said. "It's just you and me."

Emma took a deep breath of the pine-scented air. "Oh, this is fabulous. Talk about getting away from it all. Oh, I love it, I love it, I love it." She began to dance a little jig in the work boots she had worn for the trip. She'd thought the boots had looked ridiculous as she left the General Crossen Inn, but here, they looked perfectly appropriate.

"Well," he said, going around to the rear of the wagon and opening the trunk. "Let's go in, and I'll show you the place."

Emma walked around and tried to pull her bag out of the trunk, but David tugged it away from her. "I'll carry this stuff. You just take it easy there, pioneer girl."

Emma giggled and ran up the steps ahead of him. She turned back to her husband. "Keys?" she said.

"Uncle John always kept the key under the mat."

Emma bent over and lifted the weather-beaten welcome mat. "Sure enough," she said. She turned it in the stiff lock, pushed the door open, and stepped inside.

"Wait a minute. Stop," he cried. He set the bags down on the steps.

Emma looked back at him in alarm. "What?"

He walked up to her, lifted her in his arms as if she were no heavier than a doll, and carried her into the cabin. "Allow me, Mrs. Webster. It's our first threshold."

"That is so sweet," she said. "I forgot all about that."

"We don't want any bad karma," he said, setting her down in the room.

The cabin smelled a little musty. The great room was simply furnished with a braided rug and a wood-framed sofa and a chair that faced the large, fieldstone hearth, which smelled faintly of cooked meat. Beside the fireplace a pair of canoe paddles rested against the wall. Along the opposite wall of the great room was a countertop with a stove and refrigerator that were not new, but not ancient either. The cabinets were stained the same russet color as the outside of the cabin. A closed, gateleg table and two chairs facing each other nestled against a narrow kitchen island, which held the sink and a butcher-block countertop. "Does it look the same to you after all these years?" Emma asked.

"Yeah. Pretty much," he said. "Let me go get the bags."

Emma opened a few cupboard doors and found old jars and bottles of spices, well-used pots and pans, and some rusty cans of food.

"Good thing we bought supplies," said Emma to her husband as he followed her in, hauling the duffel bags.

"I'll put these in our bedroom," he said.

"Let me check it out with you," she said, closing the cupboards. She followed him back to where the two bedrooms were divided by a pleasantly clean and new-looking bathroom.

"Which room?" David asked.

"Doesn't matter," said Emma. "We're sleeping in front of the fire, remember?"

"Until one of us gets too creaky to stand it anymore," he said. He set the bags down in the room that had a queen-size bed. Emma went back out and opened the refrigerator. There was an open box of baking soda, a few bottles of Coke, and some jelly jars on the door. Otherwise the fridge was empty.

David looked over her shoulder. "Not very well stocked," he said apologetically.

"I don't know. I kind of like it," Emma said. "It has a little character. So many places people go now are just homogenous. You can't tell Tortola from Timbuktu. This place, you can kind of feel the presence of the family. A sense of the past."

"Well, do you want me to drag the mattress out here now?" he asked.

"No, let's wait until after supper," she said with a smile. "We might want to sit out here and read tonight. But I definitely want a fire going the whole time."

"As you wish, madame," said David. "Uncle John has an ax in that shed. I want to split a little more wood," he said. "That little stack won't last until morning. I better get to work." He made a bicep and offered it for her to admire.

Emma squeezed his arm and then tilted back the brim of her cap and kissed him. He kissed her back, playfully at first, and then harder. Her baseball cap fell to the floor as the kiss deepened, and he put his arms around her. Her body responded automatically to his, making her feel at once languid and aroused. She could feel his desire stirring too, and suddenly, nothing else seemed to matter. She reached up to unbutton his shirt.

"Whoa, wait a minute," he said. "I should get out there and start chopping before it's too dark."

"We could manage without the fire," she offered.

"Oh no," he said. "We definitely need the fire. It'll be better by the fire."

She knew he was right. They were out here in the woods, and they needed to be sensible about things. But it was the first time she could remember in their short six months that he had not been as eager as she was to fall into bed together. A little corner of her heart felt hurt by his need to be practical. "Is this the curse of married life?" she asked.

"No," he said with a shade of exasperation. "But I need to take care of you now. That means I don't want you and our baby to freeze to death tonight."

"I know," she said. "You're right. Go do your Paul Bunyan thing. But don't wear yourself out completely."

"Never," he said. "You know me better than that." He kissed her on the forehead and headed outside.

"Later," she whispered as the door slammed behind him. Then she heard the car door slam. Emma began unloading the food they had brought. I wonder if there's any ice? she thought absently, opening the door to the freezer. Inside the freezer was a can of coffee and a package of frozen lasagna, completely frosted over. Ugh, she thought. How long has this been here? She pulled out the package and wiped the frost off of the label, expecting to see an ancient sell-by date from years ago. To her surprise, the package was dated August of this year. August? she thought. How long a shelf life does this stuff have? She remembered John Zamsky saying that he hadn't used the cabin in years. Maybe one of his kids came here to visit. She debated throwing the package away, but then decided to just leave it where it was. It didn't belong to her. She filled empty ice cube trays with water and put them back in the freezer.

When she was done unloading, the fridge was not exactly full, but there was enough to keep them well fed for the weekend. She didn't want to have to go looking for a store tomorrow, so she had insisted that they bring all the basics as well as a few luxury items. David had brought beer. She couldn't drink alcohol because of the baby, but she had taken two bottles of sparkling cider from the wedding so that it would seem like champagne. Emma closed the door to the fridge. From outside she could hear the sound of cracking as David began to split the wood. She glanced out and saw him there, placing the logs on a stump and cleaving them deftly with a shiny ax.

I'd better make up the bed, she thought. Even if they did pull the mattress into the living room in front of the fire, it would be better if the sheets were already on it. Ever since she became pregnant, she had a tendency to fall asleep at a moment's notice. Out here in the fresh air, she could probably fall asleep standing up. She went into the bedroom, turned on the bedside light, and emptied their suitcases into the narrow closet. Then she went and reached for the sheets she had placed in a large shopping bag. As she began to stretch the bottom sheet around the corner of the bed, she realized that the cracking sound of the logs being split had ceased.

That was quick, she thought.

She walked around the bed, pulling on the sheet, and then she tossed open the top sheet and let it drift onto the bed. As she began to tuck it in, she felt a little twinge in her abdomen. Overdoing it, she thought. She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked out the bedroom window. A sliver of the river was visible through the pine trees. It gleamed silver like a knife. The whole world seemed to be silent, except for the odd call of a bird in the trees and a faint rustle of desiccated leaves.

I like this, she thought. I need this. She heard a creak, as if the front door had opened.

"David?" she called out.

There was no answer.

Probably the wind, she thought. Or the Jersey Devil. She thought immediately of her conversation with Burke about monsters. Over the years, the legend of the Jersey Devil, if not the devil himself, had proved durable and been blamed for much mayhem in the Pine Barrens. It added a certain mystery to these woods. But it was just a legend. Albeit a truly scary one. Don't be a dope, she told herself. Now you're scaring yourself. She took a deep breath, got up off the bed, and resumed tucking in the sheet. For a minute, she wished she had a radio to keep her company until David came back inside. Yeah. That would do a lot for the peace and quiet, she chided herself.

She finished the sheet and turned to pick up the blanket. Through the bedroom door, she thought she saw a movement in the outer room. "David?" she said.

There was no reply. She swallowed hard and took another breath. You're spooking yourself. You're just not used to silence. Emma smoothed a blanket over the sheets, put the pillows in their cases, and then picked up the bedspread.

Typical David, she thought uneasily. He probably took off exploring somewhere. Couldn't wait until tomorrow. She straightened up and patted her belly. Let's go out and call him, Aloysius, she thought, using her pet name for the baby growing inside of her. What do you say?

Turning off the bedroom lamp, she went back out into the great room. The light was on over the kitchen stove top, but everything else was in a twilight gloom, and the temperature seemed to have plummeted with the fading of the day. Still, it all looked quiet and undisturbed. She opened the front door and walked outside onto the tiny landing of the top step. There was wood, stacked by the piles of logs, but no sign of her husband anywhere. Emma thought about trying to find him, but she didn't know which direction he might have gone. From where she stood on the steps, Emma could see the shafts of golden light withdrawing from the trees and disappearing abruptly from the brown, leafy forest floor. Don't go out there, she thought. If you get lost in those woods, you'll really be in a pickle. Stop being so jumpy. He'll be back any minute.

With a sigh, she reopened the door and went back inside. The musty room suddenly felt uncomfortably dark and chilly. There were two fat, red pillar candles on flat pewter holders on the mantelpiece and a pair of squat, straight candles in ceramic holders on the little gateleg dining table. I could light those, she thought. Get the place in the mood. On the mantelpiece was an old box of wooden matches with every bit of the striking surface streaked back and forth. She pulled out a match and dragged it across the surface. It sprang to flame. She lit the red pillars and both the straight candles. The room was instantly transformed. While it was still dim, with only the wavering candlelight, it felt warmer already and cozier. I wonder if I should start the fire, Emma thought. There was one basket of wood next to the hearth and some old papers. Your mother can do this, Aloysius, she thought. She learned to make a fire when she was not much bigger than you.

Emma went over to the hearth, bent down, and began balling up the papers. She set them in the hearth with its strong smoky meat smell. At least a fire will get rid of the odor, she thought. She placed some short branches on the paper for kindling and then arranged the wood in a teepee, as her father had taught her. Okay, she thought. That looks right. Emma stood up and found the matchbox. She struck one match, but before she could bend down to light the edge of the paper the match went out.

All right, she thought. Try that again. She crouched down, holding the matchbox, and lit the match. This time she was able to set the burning match to the paper and it caught. The flame seemed to hesitate, dancing for a moment, and then it ran down the edge of the paper and began to burn, the flames leaping to ignite the kindling. All right, she thought. Wait until David gets back. He will be so proud of me.

At that very moment, as she felt the little triumph of having lit the fire, she felt the candlelight from the table beside the kitchen island disappear as if the flames had gone out. At the same time, the flames on the pillar candles on the mantel wavered and began to smoke. Emma's heart seized. Someone was moving up behind her. "David?" she said. She turned, still crouching, and looked up.

In the twilit gloom, she saw him. He was upon her. Three feet away. A figure in a bulky hooded sweatshirt. A black ski mask covered the entire face save two ragged holes outlined in red around the shadowed eyes. Emma's limbs were stone. Her heart was bursting. "Who are you? What do you want?" she cried.

He did not reply. In his gloved hand he held an ax. Its edge gleamed in the flame from her fire as he advanced on her. She put up her hands to try to shield herself, her baby. Oh my God, she thought. Oh, please! This can't be happening. God help me. As he lifted the ax, she looked around frantically. She screamed and tried to scramble away from him. It was no use. He was too close.

She saw a flash of steel descending.

Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Bourgeau


Excerpted from Married to a Stranger by Patricia MacDonald Copyright © 2007 by Patricia MacDonald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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