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Six months later
"Are you sure you don't want us to come get you?" Delia asked over the phone. "We're good listeners. Well, Patti is. But I can get you drunk."
In the background, Patti Jordan huffed that booze was not a long-term solution.
Delia, who enjoyed riling the housewife with outrageous statements, retorted in a stage whisper that two of the best short-term ways for a woman to forget her troubles were getting nailed or getting hammered.
Actually, the promise of premium Grey Goose was tempting right now, especially since Kate's financial situation had changed in the past few months. Any liquor purchases she made in the near future would be limited to the affordably generic. Joe's Vodka? Yikes. But tomorrow would be difficult enough without being hungover.
"I'm sure." Kate tucked her legs beneath her on the bed, wondering if she'd ever get used to sleeping alone on the king-size mattress. Her old queen was upstairs, but sleeping in the guest room would only make living in Paul's home without him more surreal. Adjust already. It had been five weeks since the sentencing. "Thanks for the offer, though."
"In some ways, Katie, I envy you having the place to yourself. There have been one or two occasions I wanted to smother Ringo with his own pillow." Delia's live-in lover, Alexander, had been dubbed Ringo to go with Kate's and Patti's husbands—Paul and George. No John. But, like Lennon, Paul now had his own FBI file.
Kate fought the mad impulse to get roaring drunk and belt out "I Am The Walrus."
On the other end of the phone there was a muttered "ouch." Patti had probably thumped Delia on the shoulder for insensitivity, much the same way that she did whenever Delia tried to light a cigarette in Patti's home.
"So. Tomorrow." Delia cleared her throat. "Conjugal visit? Très kinky."
Federal prisons didn't allow that kind of visitation, but Kate didn't comment since Patti was now demanding, "What is wrong with you? Her husband has been sent to prison, you idiot. It's not a joking matter."
"You think making everything deadly serious is going to cheer her up?" Delia rejoined.
While Kate's two incongruous best friends quibbled as if Kate weren't even on the other end, she stared at her reflection in the vanity against the bedroom wall. Long dark hair, seriously needing a trim and deep conditioning, hung around delicate features pinched with tension. How did I become this woman?
She'd busted her ass to get a degree, leave Texas and start fresh. She'd wanted to become a respected business-woman with all the trappings of success. Now she was someone who created hushed silences at the club, snickers in her own office and awkward arguments over how to "handle" her during phone calls from friends. Dammit, Paul.
Rage flared, followed immediately by guilt. Was it petty of her to resent a man already suffering the loss of basic rights and privacies?
Though she worked hard to present a composed demeanor to others, she fluctuated wildly between anger over her husband's screwup and renewed vows to be a more supportive wife. It had been two weeks since the end of his initial no-visitors-allowed period, and she'd yet to see him. The minimum security "camp" in West Virginia might not be Alcatraz, but it was enough to separate Kate from the man she loved. Enough to interrupt not only the life they'd shared but their very lifestyle.
She made a perfectly nice salary, but she wouldn't have attempted mortgage payments on a house in this neighborhood by herself. The cushion of their savings account had been deflated by a luxurious tropical honeymoon that seemed a lifetime ago and mounting legal fees. In addition to being forced to step down as CEO, Paul had forfeited his stock in the company. Their finances had been so altered that the expensive tuition for his children's prestigious boarding school was no longer feasible. Kate had a week before the kids returned from a visit with their grandparents in Florida. It will be fine, she assured herself, even though she didn't have the energy left to dwell on that tonight.
"Dee? Delia! Hey, remember me? The person you called?" It took a moment to get the woman's attention. Patti, the homemaker, and Delia, self-described ball breaker, had met through Kate. She was the linchpin of the threesome, but not even her presence kept the other two from occasional spirited bickering. At times it was entertaining, but right now Kate just wanted to go to bed.
"Sorry." Delia's tone was sheepish, Patti echoing the apology in the background.
"I think I'm going to turn in, but thanks for checking on me."
"That's what we're here for." In that, Delia and Patti were united.
Even though Kate hadn't felt social enough to join them at Delia's town house tonight, she appreciated their loyalty. Since federal agents had visited on that fateful Valentine's Day, members of Kate's social circle had distanced themselves from her and Paul. Not completely, in case he was acquitted, but enough that none of his taint could spill over to them. The same taint Kate had been trying to escape when she'd left for college—the neighborhood she'd lived in, her mom's disreputable boyfriends, Lorna's shrill insistence that Kate could better both their lives if she would only try harder.
Finally Kate had earned a better life for herself through positive visualization and years of hard work. But she'd never envisioned a husband in the pokey. What was the current slang for that, anyway? Big house? Joint? Hoosegow seemed outdated.
"You sure you want to make the trip alone?" Delia asked.
"I know neither of us is an approved visitor, but maybe Lily... Then again, maybe not."
Heavy on the not, Kate agreed silently.
More than once, Kate had wished Lily lived farther away. Kate understood that Heather's parents, who lived in Florida, and younger sister, much closer in Richmond, wanted to stay involved with Heather's children and that the family had been a big part of Paul's life. But it was awkward to step into the new wife role and feel as if the first wife's sister was constantly judging you. Unfavorably. Lily made attempts to be personable, especially if the children were around, but she couldn't quite mask the disdain in her brown eyes, the conviction that Kate was a sorry replacement for the mother Neve and PJ had lost.
"I'll be fine by myself."
"Well, call one of us tomorrow if you need to talk. I'll be home with my laptop, getting some work done during Ringo's tennis tournament. Then he's off to New York on Sunday, so I'll be free all week if you want company. Patti says drive safe."
Kate smiled, suspecting Patti dispensed that advice on an hourly basis now that her sixteen-year-old only child had his license. "I will. Good night."
"Night." Delia hesitated only for a moment before adding in an uncharacteristically emotional tone, "This whole thing sucks. Paul deserved better—damn witch hunt in a post-Enron climate, if you ask me."
Too bad the courts had taken a different view. As she hung up the phone, Kate wondered idly if persecution of a man should more appropriately be called a warlock hunt.
The most genuine, decent man she'd ever known...and a judge wearing a black robe and a sanctimonious expression had pronounced him a criminal. Ironic, considering how many of her mom's lovers Kate had suspected were prison-bound. Lorna had a penchant for codependent relationships with destructive men.
This is different. Paul was a good guy who'd made a dumb hiring mistake.
During the wedding planning, when Paul had been understandably distracted, he'd given someone who had previous dealings with the company a finance position. Some of the man's freelance work the year prior, thanks to a 2002 legislative act, made the employment a criminal conflict of interest. A simple oversight. Then again, CEOs were responsible for the financial welfare of a lot of people and couldn't afford stupid oversights. Though she wanted to be outraged on her husband's behalf, the businesswoman in her knew it had been Paul's responsibility to double-check issues like this one. It's why he was paid the big bucks. Unfortunately, in his preoccupation, he'd made one or two other minor errors that the prosecution had painted as signs of impending corruption.
It had all come to light because of a quiet federal investigation of the company Paul had left before Kate met him. Apparently his previous employer had been releasing exaggerated financial reports, inflating their worth and cheating stockholders. Reasoning that Paul likely knew about this fraud before quitting, investigators had widened the scope of their inquiry to Paul himself.
No one cared that he'd walked away from a high-paying job because he'd started to have unproven suspicions about executive ethics. No one cared that, after losing his first wife when he'd expected their marriage to last another thirty or forty years, remarrying had given him a lot to think about besides dotting every i according to increasingly complicated corporate regulations. When you were a chief executive officer, "oops" was not a satisfactory defense.
Kate sighed, and when the sound fell too heavily in the empty room, she reached for the silver remote in the top drawer of her nightstand. With a press of her finger, a black-and-white movie came to life on the television. How was it she so desperately needed background voices when she'd had her own place most of her adult life? It was as illogical as her constantly craving sleep, then being unable to rest once her head hit the pillow. Last night she'd tossed and turned until after two in the morning.
Whereas Paul probably couldn't wait for each day to end—bringing him closer to the completion of his six-month sentence and a normal life again—Kate was unsettled by the recent passage of days. They'll be home soon.
For the past couple of years PJ and Neve had stayed for a few weeks of the summer with their maternal grandparents in Tampa. This year's "few weeks" had stretched into two months. Kate and Paul felt the kids would have a better time at the beach and visiting Epcot than sticking around for their father's trial. Still, with the new school year starting the last week of August, Neve and PJ would be returning a week from Monday. Was she ready for them? For their questions? Their wariness?
Neither of the kids had ever been overtly hostile to Kate, but she didn't get hugs and Mother's Day cards from them, either. She'd always expected Paul to be the glue that held them together as a family unit. And she'd anticipated half of that unit would keep attending school up the coast.
What if they hate me? What if I suck at this?
No. Swinging her feet to the carpet, Kate gave herself a mental pinch. She rarely allowed herself to suck at anything. And negativity was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The kids weren't troublemakers and they'd be in school most of the time, leaving her free to do her job as long as she found reliable help for a few hours each afternoon. She didn't expect mothering to be easy, but millions of women worldwide managed it, and she'd always been very capable. Plus, she still had a week to prepare. Seeing Paul tomorrow should go a long way toward reassuring her—they already had one month of his sentence behind him. Less than five to go. She could definitely handle single-parenting for under five months.
She padded to the bathroom to brush her teeth, her confidence restored. Kate St. James was a survivor. Nothing life or SEC regulations threw at her could reduce her to being Katherine Brewster again.