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Pacific Northwest residents were enjoying the sixth warm day of the year after a very long, very rainy winter. There was no better place to be on a day like this than in the town of Gig Harbor, Washington. Once a seaside hamlet where almost everyone knew everyone else, Gig Harbor's ideal location made the town's population grow by leaps and bounds. The original town had clustered around the harbor itself, but now there were new developments and shopping malls on both sides of the I-16 freeway that raced from the western end of the soaring Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, Washington, to the Bremerton navy shipyards.
The Washington Corrections Center for Women was located a few miles away in Purdy, but Gig Harbor hadn't known much crime -- until recently. From 2006 to 2007, a series of appalling murders reminded people who lived in Gig Harbor that there really is no completely safe place anywhere.
On a balmy spring Saturday in 2006, David Brame, the police chief of the City of Tacoma, stalked his pretty young wife, Crystal, with deadly intensity. She had finally gotten the nerve to separate from him, and he would not allow that. In a crowded shopping mall in Gig Harbor, with their two small children in the backseat of their mother's car, Brame fatally wounded his wife with his service revolver before committing suicide.
Passersby rushed to remove the children from the car and shield them from seeing any more horror than they already had. Brame was dead, but Crystal lingered in critical condition for several days while family, friends, and strangers prayed that she might survive to raise her children. She could not come back from her massive brain injuries, although she fought a good fight.
Ten months later, in March 2007, an older couple died in Gig Harbor in a murder-suicide in their own home. It was difficult to say which tragedy shocked locals the most. The two deadly encounters made headlines in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, and the news flashed throughout the Internet, touching lives far away, too.
Even so, there are still numerous pockets of serenity in Gig Harbor. None seem quite as safe as a small development a half mile from the original downtown. The residents there are all over fifty, and bylaws of the community are strict. None of the homes are sprawling or flashy, all are painted a discreet gray and white. The streets are named with sailing terms, such as Dockside Drive, Tideland Terrace, Windy Way, and Jib Sail, and they wind around in a series of curves and cul-de-sacs. The homes at the front of the neighborhood have wonderful views of the harbor, the Dalco and Colvos passages that curve west of Vashon Island, leading to Puget Sound beyond. Most of the others have at least a peek at the view, and the tall fir trees in Grandview Forest Park creep up to their backyards, swaying and sighing in the wind off the water.
There are islands in the streets to discourage speeding; they're about fifteen feet across, all covered with bushes and flowers. Each velvet-green yard shows the loving care of its residents: Japanese maples, rhododendrons, azaleas, dogwoods, tulips, daffodils, and heather abound in the spring, and hydrangeas, lavender, petunias, gladiolas, and dahlias blossom in full summer.
But there is one small house that stands empty. Its lot, like all the others, is very small -- perhaps eight feet away from the neighbors' windows. It's a sweet house, once the beloved home of an elderly woman. Now it almost seems to vibrate, sending out a chill feeling of terror, oppression, and perhaps insanity.
It was very difficult for me to park in its driveway for even ten minutes. Everything in me seemed to scream: "Leave! Get away from here...now!"
I didn't listen. I had a story to tell.
Sometimes the month of May felt to her like a replay of one long bad dream, bringing back memories too frightening to explore, too intrusive to ignore. Every spring, the dark-haired woman felt a flash of another recollection, playing across her mind like a video clip. Try as she might, she could never erase it before it finished playing.
The sun had become a narrow sliver on the western horizon, and then it was gone, swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean, and leaving the woods dark as pitch as she ran for her life. She couldn't see where she was going, but that meant he couldn't see her either. For that she was grateful. He had promised her that this was the night she was going to die, and she didn't doubt his intention. Her only chance to survive was to reach her neighbors' house before he caught up with her.
She was barefoot and naked, but that didn't matter. She barely felt the thorns and little stones on the forest floor, the sharp gravel of the long driveway, the scratches etched in her skin by the fir and pine boughs and the blackberries that sprang suddenly out of the dark all around her. She marveled that she had never run so fast in her life, almost levitating as she plunged through the trees and boulders. Adrenaline surged through her body despite the aching in her lungs; she was a constant hiker on the beach far below, but she hadn't run for years.
Now she ran. She thought she heard him behind her.
It seemed impossible that this was the man she had admired, longed for, and been ecstatically happy with, back when the time they could be together had finally arrived. They had been through so much, and for a while it had looked like all their hopes and plans for the future were actually going to come true. She'd followed his lead without a single doubt, because he was strong, capable, and charismatic. And kind.
Once, she could not even imagine leaving him, but now she wanted only to be free, and to keep from dying at his hands.
It was May 29, 1999, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, when it all fell apart.
Most people who lived on the Oregon coast or who had traveled there for the holiday weekend were having picnics and camping out. It was the first three-day weekend of the year when they could reasonably expect the weather to be warm and sunny, and the whole coastline from Astoria to Brookings was wondrous as summer rapidly headed in. In the winter, Oregon beach towns were subdued, cloaked in misty rain and fog, and year-round residents enjoyed the peace that descended when the tourists left. Gold Beach was no different.
The couple whose lives collided in a scene of horror had believed that Gold Beach would be their Shangri-la. On one of their many driving trips around the country, both of them had been taken with the little town. It seemed almost a Brigadoon of tranquility and natural beauty. Located about twenty miles from the California border on twisting Highway 101, Gold Beach had once been strictly a logging town with rugged roots, but its incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and the sea stacks -- rock towers rising high above the surf -- drew tourists, too.
Californians flocked to Gold Beach, beachcombing from Cape Sebastian to Cape Ferrelo, enjoying the virtual wilderness just beyond town and the endless surging waves of the Pacific Ocean. Their increasing presence providentially offered a new industry to Gold Beach as the logging faded. Small businesses sprang up, catering to visitors with art, theater, and wine festivals.
Steelhead and trout fishing had long been popular with true aficionados on the roaring Rogue River that coursed to the sea near Gold Beach, but jet boats soon offered sightseeing trips up the Rogue. Hollywood came to the Rogue River to make movies, and a number of famous stars built sylvan retreats there.
Publicity penned glowingly by entrepreneurs pointed out that tiny Gold Beach had more hours of sun on any given day than any other town located on the Oregon and Washington coastlines. Old-timers hated to see the metamorphosis of Gold Beach from a place where everyone cared about one another to a tourist magnet, but they acknowledged that people had to have a way to make a living.
On their first trip, one couple from California drove around Gold Beach, dined at a restaurant owned by locals, and fell in love with the small town. One of their goals was to come back someday, not as tourists but to live there.
And they did.
But by the time they returned to Gold Beach, their relationship was riddled with arguments, disappointments, and quite probably even lies. Moving there was supposed to be another chance for them. Perhaps neither could foresee what might happen if they failed.
Perhaps one of them did.
She sometimes thought back to where they'd begun, when their meeting had seemed so serendipitous. The circuitous route that most people take to meet that one person romantically dubbed the love of their lives makes one marvel that anyone ever finds that person. Sometimes those fated to meet -- for one reason or another -- cross each other's paths a few times before the timing is right.
Or wrong, in some cases.
Lifelong love or friendship -- or endless unhappiness -- may result. All perceptions of love and romance seem great at the start.
Kathy Ann Jewell was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio -- in Knox County -- as the second half of the twentieth century began. Mount Vernon is about halfway between Mansfield and Columbus. As a teenager, I spent one summer in Mansfield visiting my aunt and uncle. All I recall of note was the surprise elopement of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a huge social event for Mansfield. Bogart had extricated himself from his third marriage so he could marry the much younger Bacall. She was twenty and he was forty-five, and their affair was the talk of Hollywood when they were married at author Louis Bromfield's farm estate.
Kathy Ann -- who soon was called just Kate -- wouldn't remember that, of course; she was only a baby at the time. Her father, Harold Jewell, worked in her uncle's appliance store, as both a salesman and a repair specialist. The first television sets were hitting the market, and the American public was enthralled with the new medium for communication. In the fifties, the sets were black-and-white only, and there weren't many programming choices. Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town variety show and Milton Berle's Tuesday-night Texaco Star Theater drew huge audiences. Some television viewers were so entranced that they found even the test patterns intriguing.
Later, Kate's father worked in the accounting department of the Cooper-Bessemer Company, Mount Vernon's main industry, a company that had manufactured gold-standard compression engines for 175 years.
Kate's mother, Hannelore Erlanger Jewell, was -- like most mothers then -- a housewife. The Second World War was over and the Korean War seemed so far away. The mood all over America was optimistic, and Mount Vernon's twelve thousand citizens were no different. It was an idyllic town, a good town to grow up in.
Harold Jewell was born and raised in Mount Vernon. He joined the Marines after high school and became a paratrooper, one of the first wave of Marines to hit Iwo Jima. He was also one of a handful of men in his company to survive that assault. Although he rarely spoke about the war, he once revealed that his assignment was to be the last man off the LST (Landing Ship, Tank), an amphibious vessel designed in World War II to land battle-ready tanks. His job was to gather guns and ammo that might have been left behind. Once, he found the lieutenant in command there huddled in a corner, terrified.
"I had to slap him to get him up and moving," Jewell commented. "By the time I finished gathering up all the gear, I was separated from everyone in my company."
A few nights later, Jewell dug himself a foxhole in the black sand and pulled a piece of tin roofing over him, only to be wakened and ordered to the shoreline to fight off an expected Japanese attack. That never happened, but when he got back to his foxhole, he found it obliterated by an air strike. He thanked his lucky stars he'd survived Iwo Jima.
Hannelore, Kate's mother, was born in Germany to a Jewish father, Lothar, and a Christian mother, Minna, although they were not allowed to marry at the time. Lothar's father forbade his son to marry a non-Jew, so Hannelore and her sister, Margo, were sent to live with a nurse from the local hospital. It was only when her parents had a male child that her grandfather permitted Lothar and Minna to marry and Hannelore and Margo went to live with their birth parents.
Her foster mother, the nurse, had a daughter, Katja, fifteen, who adored Hannelore. It was mutual. Hannelore had a happy girlhood until 1939, when she was eleven and suddenly became a pariah -- an ostracized Jew -- living in fear with her family. Somehow, Lothar Erlanger managed to get his family out of Germany on the last ship before the war began, and they escaped the death camps.
Ten years later, Hannelore found Katja after the war, and she named Kate in honor of her old friend.
Kate clearly came from strong stock. She was a pretty child, who grew to be a lovely woman -- tall and slim, with blue-green eyes and almost-black hair. She had a little sister, Connie, eighteen months younger than she was.
Kate became a flight attendant for American Airlines back in a time when they were still called stewardesses and their physical attractiveness seemed to be the primary job requisite. It was a career many young women aspired to, with far more applicants than jobs in what was considered a glamorous profession.
Flying satisfied Kate's quest for new experiences and adventures not to be found in small-town Ohio. She traveled a lot, both for her job and for pleasure and public service.
Sometimes, when she was on layovers for American, she stayed in luxury hotels like the Fairmont in Dallas, with coffee on a silver tray, a fresh rose, and even a phone in the bathroom. But she also went on volunteer mercy missions, during which she would throw a sleeping bag on the dirt floor of a simple hut or tent in some far-off underprivileged country. She went to Nepal several times, volunteering for the Dr. Tom Dooley Foundation. Many of her fellow flight attendants did the same thing. By Nepalese law, they were only allowed to stay in the country for three months at a time. They could leave and come back, but they weren't allowed to "take jobs" that belonged to citizens.
Kate learned to adapt to almost any situation and was invariably cheerful and content with her life. One of her goals since childhood had been to help people, and the Dooley Foundation gave her an opportunity to do that.
By 1973, Kate had moved to San Diego, California, to fly out of the American Airlines base there. It was a good time to live in San Diego, although the population boom and the inevitable traffic snarls were beginning to emerge. It wasn't surprising that so many people were moving to San Diego County. The weather was perfect, and there were flowers everywhere Kate looked: bougainvillea, jasmine, poinsettias that grew roof-high, and hibiscuses in many colors. Even the freeway shoulders were carpeted with purple ice plants and manzanita bushes. There was the magnificent San Diego Zoo, as well as San Diego Bay, with the ocean just beyond.
Kate lived in various apartments, moving often, from Mission Valley to La Mesa, back to Mission Valley and, for a short time, in University City. In the late eighties, she found a condo for rent on Solana Beach. It was located on a cliff and had a magnificent, 180-degree ocean view. The rent was reasonable because she shared it with a platonic male roommate. Their schedules were so different that it was almost like living alone. Solana Beach was perfect for her, as she was a dedicated swimmer who would enjoy the sport for the rest of her life. She was in the ocean swimming or boogie boarding most of the days she wasn't flying.
When Kate was in her twenties, she always had plenty of dates, but she wasn't anxious to get married. As she moved into her thirties, she had a few long relationships, but there always came a time when they ended. Sometimes she was the one who wanted to move on; sometimes she realized that the men she dated were averse to any lasting commitment. But she wasn't lonely -- she loved her job, and she was still extremely attractive. She felt no pressure to get married or to plunge into a long-term affair.
Kate Jewell had many interests, and one of them was nutrition and its effect on health, perhaps because she had contracted the cytomegalovirus while she was in Nepal, and the virus had never quite gone away. But she'd always believed that what people ate changed who they were. She was a strict vegetarian who studied and worked in nutrition in the early eighties as she maintained her flight status with American Airlines.
In the fall of 1989, Kate was in her midthirties, a time when most people pause to evaluate their lives. Kate was no different. She had just ended another relationship and realized that if she ever did marry, it might be too late to have children. She wasn't unhappy, but she wasn't really happy, either. She found herself at a crossroads.
Kate started changing her life by literally and figuratively cleaning out her closets, throwing out both clothes and memories that were out-of-date. Then she decided to take better care of her health and feel as good as she possibly could. Always a swimmer, hiker, and exerciser, she had to admit that she was feeling run-down and somewhat weary. Where she had once been slender without effort, recently she had put on some excess pounds. She was subject to hives and had a dime-sized sore on her nose that would not heal; she was quite sure it was caused by the CMV virus and had something to do with her diet.
Kate made an appointment at the Bayview Medical Group on Clairmont Drive in Mission Bay. Dr. John Branden's background appeared to be outstanding. He had come with enthusiastic recommendations from her friends. The Bayview Clinic was modern and well appointed. She studied the diplomas on his office wall: Dr. Branden had a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Santa Fe College of Natural Medicine. He wasn't an MD, but he certainly seemed to have had extensive education in nutrition and alternative medical treatments.
"Hi," he said, holding out his hand to cradle hers. "I'm Dr. John."
On first meeting, Dr. Branden was impressive, al-though he seemed as young as she was -- if not younger. "I thought he was about thirty-five, but he was forty-four," she recalled. "One thing I remember about that first meeting was that he had the most gorgeous -- almost glowing -- skin."
That in itself was a good advertisement for his expertise. She noted that he dressed impeccably: His jacket and slacks were obviously custom-made, as were his shirts and what had to be a $250 tie. She learned later that his expensive Ferragamo shoes and sweaters were from Nordstrom. He wasn't a handsome man by ordinary standards, only about five foot ten, blond, and slightly balding, with eyebrows that sloped down and a nose that could be described as somewhere between patrician and knobby. Still, he had a definite presence -- that of a man in charge of his practice and his life. It suited him. Kate was impressed.
"He wasn't my physical 'type,' though," Kate said. Her preference had always been for the traditional "tall, dark, and handsome man," she admitted, and then added wryly, "who [wasn't] able to make a commitment."
Of course that didn't matter with John Branden. She wasn't in his office looking for someone to date; she just wanted to feel better. And he certainly couldn't make a commitment: He was married. His wife worked at Bayview, too, handling the insurance and the billing with the help of an accountant who was on the payroll. His daughter Tamara scheduled appointments, greeted patients, and was the front-office manager. She was nineteen and obviously thought her father was perfect. Kate learned that his younger teenage daughter, Heather, worked at SeaWorld. "Both his girls were lovely," Kate recalled. "They had that fabulous skin, too."
Tamara was attending the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine part-time to get degrees in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. When her classes interfered with her job, Dr. Branden's wife, Sue, or his younger daughter manned the front desk. Somewhat jarringly for the wife of a nutrition expert, Sue Branden was quite overweight, and she had a rather glum personality. Or perhaps she was just having a bad day, Kate thought. She seemed very different from her husband and her daughters. They brimmed with enthusiasm and cheerfulness. Kate learned that Tamara would soon be the youngest licensed acupuncturist in California.
The Bayview Medical Group offered an eight-week program, Branden explained to Kate. There would be weekly visits with him, three blood screens, menu plans, and supplements. They would begin with blood tests -- titers -- and whatever normal and abnormal readings resulted would indicate what her system lacked. He told her that he would personally work out a diet that would be tailored just for her, and he promised to prescribe the proper vitamins. He assured her she would be feeling well in no time, and when he spoke, he looked directly into her eyes.
She believed him. She didn't like the idea of needles in her arm, but she followed him across the hall to the blood-drawing room. At his direction, Kate rolled up her sleeves and lay back on the paper-covered exam table.
Watching him prepare the syringe and vials, Kate said, "I'm warning you that I have deep, rolling veins that don't like being poked or prodded."
He nodded calmly.
"A few years ago," she continued, "a doctor stabbed me a dozen times, and he never drew anything but pain."
He palpated her left arm and realized that she'd been telling him the truth about rolling veins. He switched to her right arm, tightening a tourniquet above her elbow.
"I want you to connect with me," he said, looking into her eyes. "Visualize your blood flowing effortlessly from your vein into my needle. I'll insert the needle."
There was an almost sensual feeling as he slid the needle in. With her eyes closed, she visualized what he'd suggested, and her blood draw was complete within moments with virtually no pain.
"That was excellent," he said, once again looking directly into her eyes as he applied a bandage and put pressure on the vein. She couldn't tear her eyes away from his.
She learned that that phrase -- "Connect with me" -- carried with it a hypnotic power. He was so honest and compassionate that people literally trusted him with their life's fluid.
Kate followed Dr. Branden's recommendations carefully, and her health steadily improved.
"It worked," she said. "I lost a little weight, my skin cleared up, and my virus symptoms were under control. I felt so much better."
During her weeks of treatment, Kate felt she was coming to know John Branden well, and found him to be a "vibrant, interesting, warm, and caring man." They first went over her diet diary, and he chided her gently for what she hadn't done, but more often he praised her. She looked forward to her weekly office visits with him, finding in him almost a kindred spirit. He matched her intellectually and could discuss so many subjects that she, too, found interesting. Kate was a college graduate, a very intelligent woman with a thirst for knowledge. John was fascinating to talk with, and unlike any man she had ever known. There wasn't the pressure that she -- or anyone -- felt in a dating situation; they were equals, platonic friends, with their own private lives.
Kate finally admitted to herself that she had a crush on Dr. John. She knew he was married and she totally respected his family bonds, so she didn't think there was any harm in her having fantasies about him. She never planned on acting on them.
Once, Kate commented to Sue Branden that she was lucky to be married to such a caring and sensitive doctor. She was startled when John's wife grimaced, rolled her eyes, and shrugged her shoulders, as if Kate had no idea what she was talking about. It was obvious Sue Branden didn't hold John in high esteem. Maybe he was so familiar to her, Kate thought, that she no longer saw his genius.
On the other hand, Sue confided to Kate that she had once wanted to be a stewardess but had married when she was so young, and then had had two daughters to raise, and so many things to do for John.
Kate and Dr. John usually ended her office visits with casual conversations, and he sometimes inquired about the romantic side of her life. She told him she'd had several long-term relationships when she was in her twenties and early thirties, but at thirty-eight, she had finally realized she was okay by herself. "I don't need a man to make me feel fulfilled and happy," she said easily.
In truth, she still hoped to find her soul mate, the one man who would love and admire her, listen to her and take care of her. But she didn't tell her doctor that.
Often, Dr. John gave her little extras, like a very professional shoulder massage. Once, he read her aura. He also told her that she gave him energy. Just being around her made him feel happier. It was a little flirtatious, but she believed it was also innocent.
When Kate's eight-week program was completed just before Christmas on December 20, she headed in for her last office visit and found herself regretting that her friendship with Dr. John was probably over. By its very nature, it was meant to be self-limiting. He was the doctor, and she was the patient, and she was well now. But she would miss him.
She was happily surprised when he gave her a lovely quartz crystal that carried with it curative powers, telling her it was a Christmas present.
"Well," she asked as she sat across the desk from him, "what do we do now? Am I supposed to come back for rechecks every so often?" Now that she had her health back, she wanted to stay on top of it, and John's program was excellent.
"That would be a wise idea," he said slowly. "Probably you should make an appointment for sometime in February."
The room had suddenly become very quiet. She looked up at him, and he wouldn't meet her eyes at first. And that was so unlike him.
John Branden said softly, "I need to say something more." And suddenly this man who was usually so verbal, sometimes spewing out words almost faster than she could understand them, was tongue-tied. When he finally spoke, he stuttered and stammered. It was strange for Kate to see him almost unable to get a sentence out.
"Say it," Kate said, half-dreading, half-hoping she knew what he was talking about.
Maybe he didn't want to keep her as a patient. Maybe she had assumed too much, and he was going to dismiss her and send her to someone else. They had formed some kind of a bond in those eight weeks, but she wasn't sure just what it was. Friendship, certainly. She sensed that he felt closer to her than he did to other patients, but that could just have been wishful thinking on her part.
"Just say it," she said again.
He stood up and walked around his desk. "I think I'm falling in love with you," he blurted.
Now she was speechless and felt stupid when she finally said, "But you're married." It was the kind of response a schoolgirl would blurt out.
He moved toward her and gave her an extremely chaste kiss. He massaged her shoulders and kissed her hair as he shared some of his fantasies about her. He asked if he could call her, and she couldn't bring herself to say no. Despite her common sense, her heart and her ego soared.
Kate Jewell was stunned. She hadn't expected this. She had been steeling herself for just the opposite. She actually knew very little about him, and he still wasn't her physical type -- but she was drawn to him. It was a ridiculous situation. His wife, who rarely smiled, and who seemed disenchanted with her husband's charm, sat just beyond the examining room door. His two pretty daughters were in and out of the office.
They all seemed to be a solid -- if not particularly happy -- family, in business together, comfortable with each other, acting out whatever scenarios they had established years before. Now John told her that he had been unhappy in his marriage for years. He said that he and Sue were very close to separating and would probably do so after the holidays. Sue spent so much money on frivolous things, she had put on so much weight, and she insisted on drinking Pepsi -- which was anathema to a staunch nutritionist. They had been on divergent paths for a very long time, he said with some sadness in his voice.
Kate hadn't thought about loving John in her real life -- or his loving her. She knew a lot of women had crushes on their doctors. She liked him and felt safe in his presence. She had hoped that their friendship and conversations might continue. She knew there would be an empty place in her life if she couldn't see him anymore. He had never touched her inappropriately, not until now. She trusted him, and she would miss him if she should choose to walk away because of those bright red warning lights now exploding in her brain. She doubted she would ever find such an easy relationship with any man again.
She didn't realize how dangerous her combination of emotions could be.
Kate had to admit -- if only to herself -- that she had fallen in love with John, all unaware.
Right after John's declaration of love, Kate flew an all-nighter to Boston and back. As passengers slept, she had a lot of time to think. She'd always trusted her own extra-sensory perception, and, for over a month, she had felt strongly that she finally was about to meet her soul mate. Was it John? No, he's married. But he's unhappy. No, he has a wife. But she doesn't complement, fulfill, or complete him.
But I, of course, could, she told herself.
Every woman in love with a married man believes that her relationship is "special," that no one else feels as she does, and that her being with him isn't really illicit because the two of them are in love and there are extenuating circumstances. And, with rare exceptions, they all get hurt when they learn that their romance isn't special at all. There is a predictable progression, but it doesn't seem predictable to someone caught up in it. Kate had seen it happen to fellow stewardesses and other friends, and she was cautious. An affair with a married man wasn't something she had ever planned to have. But she was on a slippery slope.
When she left his office that day in December, she didn't know what to expect. Maybe she would never see him again, and probably that would be best. Her mind was reeling with all the reasons not to get involved, while her heart sang with joy that this wonderful man loved her.
It was inevitable that John would call Kate, and that she would agree to see him. She found him more sincere than any other man she had ever known, and soon it didn't matter that he wasn't her type -- because he had become her type, or perhaps her type had become John Branden. They talked for hours when they could find time to be together, and John could almost read her mind. They were that close.
They planned their first date for Christmas Eve afternoon at a health-food restaurant. He seemed shy, and they were both nervous. He told her he had never done this before but he was serious about her and would tell his wife about his feelings after the holidays. He had already told his older daughter, Tamara.
They never went into the restaurant; instead, they spent their time talking in the car. They went to Kate's condo in Solana Beach but drank only cranberry juice.
They did not make love.
They walked on the beach, and John drove Kate back to her car by 5:00 p.m. "I literally floated over to my friends' house to spend Christmas Eve," she wrote in her journal.
Kate continued to fly for American Airlines, usually working as the flight attendant who served as the purser, in charge of the other attendants. She had enough seniority that she could bid on -- and get -- optimal flights, and she flew San Diego to New York City with twenty-four-hour layovers.
John kept his practice. Their lives, in the beginning at least, were not inextricably entwined. It was a delicate balance, but Kate thought she could keep her equilibrium.
But one day John confided once more that his marriage was virtually over and that he planned to get a divorce. He assured Kate that he'd never been with any woman except his wife and herself, that his feelings for her were an entirely new experience for him. He could not bear to go on in a loveless marriage -- not when he felt the way he did about Kate.
When Kate asked him why he'd never strayed before, since he and Sue seemed so unhappy together, he explained that he needed complete loyalty and commitment from the woman in his life. He had had that with Sue -- at first -- and he would, of course, need it from Kate. He was a one-woman man, faithful as long as that woman was completely devoted to him. That seemed endearing to her, and Kate promised him she could give him that. It seemed little enough to ask. He assured her that he had remained loyal to his wife for two decades. Now, their goals had diverged, and they had grown irretrievably in different directions.
Sue Branden had treated Kate like any other patient, barely acknowledging her presence when she'd occasionally come to the office for follow-up appointments. Beyond her briefly confiding that she'd wanted to be a stewardess, too, Sue was an unknown quantity to Kate. If she suspected that there was anything between her about-to-be-ex-husband and Kate, she didn't betray her feelings. Kate had the feeling she didn't care what he did.
Tamara and Heather obviously only wanted their father to be happy. His daughters clearly adored him -- especially Tamara, who was planning to follow in his footsteps. Tamara actually seemed pleased that her father was happy.
John kept his word. Unlike many married men, he really did intend to get a divorce, and he obtained a legal separation in 1990. His divorce became final two years later. He felt he was being generous with Sue by offering her $50,000. But before their divorce was legal, she asked for their town house, their new car, and generous alimony, and he agreed. Kate didn't begrudge her any of that; Sue had been with him for twenty years, and she'd given him two daughters. It seemed that Sue was almost relieved to have a divorce; she and John clearly hadn't been happy when Kate first met them, and now Sue could have a life of her own.
John still had his practice, and he was full of inspirations about improving it, adding another clinic, branching out to other enterprises, and making even more money than he currently did. Kate didn't care that much about being wealthy, but she supported him completely in his dreams of glory that lay ahead for them. She was anxious to keep her promise to John, and she gave him loyalty and dedication. "He was the brains, and I was the workhorse," she recalled. "I wrote and typed up all of his grand plans, but I was all right with that."
There were occasional bumps in the road, sides of John that Kate hadn't known about before, but she realized that people always reveal new aspects of their personalities as familiarity and trust take over.
In December 1989 -- even as John was confessing that he loved Kate -- he was being sued by a woman who lived in the condominium complex next door to the Brandens in La Mesa, California. She asked for an injunction prohibiting him from "peeping" at her. John never mentioned it to Kate, explaining later that it was merely an annoyance, and not worth worrying her about.
"Early in November 1989," his female neighbor's complaint read, "I was forced to call the police regarding my neighbor, John Branden, and report him as a Peeping Tom. He was watching me over the fence through my windows. This was not the first time he has been caught doing this. Early in the summer of 1989, John Branden was also caught watching over my fence. When confronted, he just runs off. I am afraid he may do me some harm."
John was forty-four, and the neighbor was fifty-seven, but she was an attractive woman. He responded to a temporary restraining order granted to her in an affidavit. He explained that he was "a doctor with my own medical group," and he scoffed at his neighbor's claims against him, characterizing her as "emotionally unbalanced" and angry at him for reporting her to the condominium association for having too many cats. Subsequently, seven of her eight cats had been removed. He stated it was "ludicrous" to think he would watch her covertly. He had no interest in her. His daughter Tamara backed up John's testimony, explaining that the woman seemed to be disturbed and angry -- to the point of sweeping dirt at them when she and her dad were washing their car, all the while muttering obscenities.
Tamara would always validate anything her father did. He was heroic in her eyes.
A superior court judge ordered both parties to stay away from each other for a period of not less than three years.
He never told Kate about this problem with his neighbor.
More distressing was a suit brought against John, his silent partner (a naturopathic doctor), his daughter Tamara, his estranged wife, Sue, and the Bayview Clinic practice in 1992. Although John downplayed the charges against him -- to the point that Kate wasn't aware of any of the details -- she saw that he was very worried about this lawsuit.
A former woman patient and her husband were suing John for medical malpractice, sexual battery, failure to obtain informed consent, assault and battery, fraud, and misrepresentation.
John didn't tell Kate what the charges were, and he waved off her worries, saying the woman was lying. He explained that Mary Ann Lakhvir was married to a wealthy man from a Middle Eastern culture who didn't understand that in America women could be alone with their doctors without being shamed or ostracized. John said her husband misunderstood the close ties he formed with his patients and was so jealous that the poor woman was forced to tell lies about John to her husband.
The Lakhvirs alleged in their affidavits that they'd sought treatment for serious systemic infections but Dr. Branden hadn't known how to treat them, leading them to endure great physical and emotional pain and suffering when he'd administered mostly ineffective massage treatments and vitamins at the Bayview Medical Group in 1990. They asserted that John Branden was not a medical doctor and was not licensed to draw blood from them or give Mary Ann Lakhvir a pelvic examination.
(The suit was the first step in ending the silent partnership John had with the naturopath, and he later brought in an osteopathic physician to sign insurance claims.) Kate believed that John did have a phlebotomy license and that it was legal for him to draw blood. He'd been very skilled as he'd deftly and almost painlessly slipped a needle into her arm.
But even more troubling were the Lakhvirs' sexual accusations: They maintained that John Branden had made sexual contact with Mary Ann when he'd given her a fullbody massage while she was disrobed, and that he'd kissed her while she'd been naked. They asserted that he had then removed his clothes so she could "practice massage" on his nude body and become skilled enough to give her husband home massage treatments.
Sexual battery, as defined in California statutes, means that a person must intentionally cause harmful or offensive contact with an intimate part of another person. Those parts were listed as "...sexual organ, anus, groin, or buttocks of any person, or the breast of a female."
The Lakhvirs stated that Tamara Branden was at fault, too, as she knew -- or should have known -- that her father was not licensed to massage, draw blood, perform vaginal exams, or prescribe medicine.
He had also given them nutritional counseling -- which he was adequately trained to do.
The case dragged on until 1993, but Kate knew none of the specifics. She felt sorry for John, because even though he tried to reassure her, she knew he was worried -- perhaps even frightened. He went to great lengths to avoid being served papers on the lawsuit. He seemed to be extremely concerned over the suit, which, as he explained to Kate, was over things too minor to even consider. In the end, he gave up his practice, turning it over to his daughter Tamara for a few cents on the dollar. He no longer went into his office at all.
"He changed his appearance," Kate recalled. "He grew a beard, and he let his hair grow so long that he was able to wear it in a ponytail."
Although he didn't live in Florida, John asked Kate's sister and brother-in-law in Sarasota, Florida, to resend all the mail he sent to them, so that it appeared that he was a Florida resident. With that ruse and his disguise, he felt safe. John was gleeful when people who knew him well walked right by him without recognizing him. He looked nothing like the clean-shaven, well-coiffed doctor he had been.
Of course eventually he had to face up to the accusations of an enraged husband who thought he'd been cuckolded. The case ended in April 1993, almost two years after the Lakhvirs' complaint was filed. It was dismissed with prejudice, meaning that it could not be refiled in the future.
It never was.
"John told me that he made that all go away by spending twenty-five thousand dollars," Kate said. "I'm still not sure whether he paid that to lawyers or to the woman -- but we never heard any more about it. He said it was all a misunderstanding anyway, and I believed him."
John was ultimately believable, especially to a woman who loved him and trusted his vows to help people -- his vows that both of them would help a lot of people. And the very idea that he might force himself on another woman in any sexual way was unthinkable to her. Not John. He was an honorable and concerned doctor, and simply wasn't like that.
Shortly after they began their relationship, at John's suggestion, Kate invited his best friend -- Dr. Stanley Szabo, a doctor of dental surgery who was also an expert in nutrition -- to rent the empty room and bath in her condominium. He was going through a difficult divorce, and it seemed an ideal answer for all three of them. It helped pay her rent until John was able to move in with her and share expenses, and it helped John's good friend, who was working for John at the time.
Kate had never before detected a whisper of jealousy in John, but she caught her first glimpse of his capacity for rage because of this living situation -- or, more accurately, as an adjunct to it.
John and Kate had a date one night, and when he walked in the door, he was very angry. He was furious that his best friend, now living in the condo, had parked in the driveway in John's usual spot. John couldn't understand Kate's thoughtlessness in allowing that to happen. How could she expect him to park on the street?
Kate was dumbfounded that such a trivial thing would set him off. John called off their evening and drove away, still angry. But Kate made sure he had his parking space after that, and she put his reaction that night in the back of her mind. John apologized, explaining that his blood sugar had been low and that had made him lose his temper. They resumed their relationship the next day and never spoke of his "parking tantrum" again. It was only an aberration.
She knew John was a perfectionist, even about things that shouldn't matter that much. Kate learned that he dressed so well because he had a personal shopper who bought all his clothes for him. It was one of the more benign things she hadn't known about him.
Early on, she was a little surprised to find that John drank more than she had realized. However, it didn't seem to be a problem, since they were both extremely health oriented and she didn't think John would do anything in enough excess to damage his body. He liked wine, but most Californians did.
Sometimes she saw bursts of inexplicable fury in John, not unlike his anger over his friend taking his parking space in her driveway. Kate blamed it on the times he'd had too much to drink; he attributed it to low blood sugar, fatigue, or some other problem that was out of his control. Once, when they still lived in San Diego, John took a hammer and smashed a ring he'd given her to bits. He put holes in the walls with his feet and his fists. And he was full of road rage, too, furious if another driver cut him off.
But his tantrums faded away as quickly as they came.
When the Brandens' legal separation was a fait accompli, John moved in with Kate. Neither of them was anxious to get married, but they did foresee a bright future as friends, lovers, and partners. When his divorce was final, it seemed that they had smooth sailing ahead, and they really were going to make it together.
With the divorce, John's exwife and his younger daughter no longer worked at the Bayview Medical Center. His older daughter, Tamara, had taken over the clinic. Even though the Lakhvirs' lawsuit was settled, John didn't go back.
Somehow, they had accomplished an almost tranquil transition, although John was insistent that he didn't want to stay in his present situation; he had too many plans, and he wanted to travel with Kate, to enjoy life a little now that they were both in their forties.
She was very happy living with him, working beside him. There was a kind of magic in John that inspired other people, allowing them to see possibilities they hadn't considered. As much as they had talked through long evenings, there was so much about him that she didn't know. Although there were things in his past that he didn't want to elaborate on, he occasionally gave her short scenarios about his years as a boy and younger man. He seemed to have worked and studied very hard to become the man she knew now.
Kate knew that John's father, for whom John was named, had died in 1986, but he didn't care to speak about him much. A pall seemed to descend over John whenever she asked about his father, so she didn't press him. His mother was elderly and ill, and lived close by in the San Diego area. She had lived with John and Sue, but of course they couldn't expect John's exwife to be responsible for taking care of his mother any longer.
Kate liked John's mother, and often brought her small gifts she picked up in the cities she flew to. Sometimes Kate brought to work the cozy slippers that the older woman had crocheted, which she would sell to the other flight attendants. That tickled John's mother, and she accepted Kate as a member of her family.
John was a devoted son and very considerate of his mother, who had a series of heart attacks. He visited her in her assisted-living apartment often, and he and Kate frequently took her out to dinner.
When John's mother died of her final heart attack in 1992, she left him a half million dollars in her will. John's sister, Marilyn, his only sibling, lived in the Point Loma area of San Diego. Kate had never met her -- John and she had been estranged for years. Kate wasn't sure why, but John sometimes said she had betrayed him, turning him in to "some" authorities (Kate was never sure if it was the police or someone else) when he and his family had lived with Marilyn and her husband after they'd left Florida. He also said she and her girlfriends had humiliated him when he was only a boy, making him take his clothes off, tying him up, and laughing at him.
But that was such a long time ago, and Kate suspected he might be confused about things that had happened when he was a child.
With his inheritance from his mother, John finally had the freedom to travel and plan what he would do for the rest of his life. He'd closed down his practice at Bayview in 1993, Tamara had set up her own business, and John decided not to start another California clinic.
He and Kate embarked on a long trip. They drove to Arizona to see her father. Then they went wherever the wind took them, heading up the Oregon coast and north along the Washington shoreline on the Pacific Ocean. In some places, now, the beaches became less welcoming and somehow darker and craggier. Nevertheless, the two lovers explored some of the tiny islands off the northwest Washington coast. Both of them loved the sea, and they were sure that wherever they settled down, it would be somewhere near the coast.
It was a carefree journey; they didn't have to be any special place at any given time, and they were together, finally without problems or hopes that seemed impossible to achieve.
Listening to John expound on his concepts and his solutions to any challenge was enthralling for Kate. The temper tantrums she had sometimes seen in him were easy to bury in her memory. She knew he was a good man and he had been through a lot in the past few years. With the pressure off him, she believed the angry scenes would diminish. And they did -- for a while.
Kate was thankful that she had waited until she was almost forty to find the companion and lover who was well-nigh perfect for her, and she hoped she was the same for him. She wasn't naïve enough to think they wouldn't have some detours and disappointments along the way, but she didn't worry about them.
Together, they could take on the world.
Copyright © 2008 by Ann Rule