By Colette Freedman
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2014 Colette Freedman
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, 24th December Christmas Eve
As the car pulled up to the curb outside Logan's Terminal C, Stephanie Burroughs leaned up toward the passenger's seat, grabbing Izzie's hand. "Thank you," she whispered, her breath warm against her best friend's ear. "I don't know what I would have done without you."
Izzie Wilson turned back to Stephanie. "You don't have to go," she said quickly, blinking away sudden tears. "You could stay with Dave and me over the holidays. You wouldn't have to be alone."
Stephanie shook her head. "What! And ruin your Christmas too? No, thanks. I've already decided: I'm going."
As Dave got out and popped the trunk, Stephanie smiled conspiratorially. "Besides, I thought Mr. Romantic was going to propose at midnight tonight?"
"Ssssh!" Izzie pressed her fingers to Stephanie's lips and glanced over her shoulder to where Dave was negotiating Stephanie's large suitcase out of the trunk. He glanced up, spotted the two women looking at him and smiled his gap-toothed grin before he won the war with the Vuitton. They both saw him glance quickly at his watch. "He doesn't think I know about tonight," Izzie added, "though he's done everything except update his Facebook status."
"A Christmas Eve proposal is very romantic," Stephanie reminded her.
"Just stay with us," Izzie begged. "Please! I hate the thought of you leaving."
"I'll be fine," Stephanie protested. "Thank you. I have to go; you know that. I want to go. I mean, I don't want to spend another Christmas alone. I swore after last year that I'd never go through that again."
A Boston cop tapped on the car window, motioning for them to move on.
"When will you be back?" Izzie watched Stephanie gather up her large purse and open the car door.
"I don't know. I could only get a one-way ticket into Milwaukee. I'll call you before the New Year." She kissed her friend quickly, then jumped out of the car and collected her suitcase from Dave, gave him a quick peck on the cheek and wished him a Merry Christmas, before darting into the terminal.
"It'll take us forever to get home," Dave grumbled as he got back in, cranking up the heat as far as it would go. "She could have taken a taxi," he muttered.
Although Izzie was dwarfed by Dave's size and bulk, she wasn't intimidated by him. "No, she couldn't. She's my best friend, and she's just had an incredibly traumatic experience. I can't even imagine what it was like when she opened the door and found Robert's wife standing there!"
"If she hadn't been playing around with the wife's husband, she wouldn't have found herself in that situation," Dave suggested mildly.
Izzie opened her mouth to reply and then closed it again. She couldn't argue with Dave; he was right, and she'd said as much to Stephanie on more than one occasion. She drew a pattern on the window with her finger as her warm breath fogged up the cold glass. She didn't envy her best friend: If you date a married man, you eventually get burned. And she guessed that Stephanie's misery was just beginning.
* * *
An airport on Christmas Eve: This was not how she'd planned to spend her holiday.
Stephanie Burroughs grabbed her iPad off of the security belt, and shoved it into her purse. She tugged on her black leather boots, gathered up her bags, and made her way through the chaos toward the gate.
She'd been hoping to spend Christmas Eve in the company—and the arms—of her lover. About this time, they should have been sitting in front of a crackling fire, sharing a nice bottle of Bordeaux between them, the house smelling of pine-scented candles, with Ella Fitzgerald singing Christmas carols low and muted on the stereo. After they'd had a glass or two, they would make love and then open their Christmas presents and maybe make love again.
She had started to build the fantasy a couple of weeks ago. She'd even bought the bottle—a ridiculously expensive 2001 Château Léoville Poyferré—and spent ages choosing the right CD and scented candles to help create the mood. But even as she'd been putting the various elements of her perfect Christmas Eve in place, she knew—deep in her heart—she knew that it wouldn't happen.
Her lover would never be able to get away from his wife and children on Christmas Eve. He would want to spend the evening with his family.
And she was not part of that family. Part of his life certainly, but not part of his family.
But she'd accepted that, secure in the knowledge that Robert Walker, her lover of eighteen months, had finally agreed to tell his wife that he was going to leave her. He was going to tell her after Christmas, and then he and Stephanie would spend New Year's Eve together. So, if she couldn't have her Christmas Eve fantasy, at least she could make a New Year's dream come true. A new start to the New Year with the man she loved.
Of course, that was before her encounter with Kathy Walker. Before Robert's wife had come to Stephanie's door and confronted her about the affair.
Which left her ...
Which left her walking through Logan Airport, purposefully ignoring loving couples who were leaving on their well-planned Christmas vacations, whereas she was about to head off to see the family she had only recently told that she wasn't planning to visit.
Stephanie turned into a gift shop; she needed to bring something back home, something Boston-ish. She'd already sent out her Christmas presents to her parents, four brothers, and two sisters, but she couldn't turn up empty-handed. Most of the shelves were bare, and there were lines at the cash registers. She grabbed a box of saltwater taffy and a tin of fudge with a Red Sox logo. You couldn't get more New England than that. It took almost fifteen minutes to be served. Then, she turned and headed down to gate 19.
Gate 19 was jammed.
Stephanie Burroughs looked around at the grim-faced men and women impatiently waiting for the last United flight of the day to Chicago and wondered who they were and why they were traveling. With Christmas falling in the middle of the week, she assumed most were office workers condemned to work right up to the last minute and then race for the plane to be home with their families for Christmas.
She never imagined she'd be one of them.
A few hours ago, it had been a normal Christmas Eve. She'd been happy—no, happy was too strong an emotion for what she'd been feeling. She'd been content. Yesterday, she hadn't been sure how she felt about Robert's telling his wife about their relationship. On the one hand she knew it had to be done: Robert had been stringing the two women along, lying to them both, lying to himself. So, he had to tell Kathy. According to him, relations between them had broken down a long time ago and Stephanie got the impression that the announcement might even come as a relief to the other woman. And Stephanie had felt a great deal of sympathy for the woman who was about to be told that her husband of eighteen years was going to leave her.
Then, six hours ago, Kathy Walker had appeared at Stephanie's door. Forty-five minutes later, Robert had turned up.
And in the interim between Kathy's and Robert's arrivals, Stephanie had discovered several things. She had found that Kathy still loved Robert and, shockingly—terrifyingly—that Robert still loved Kathy. Stephanie also caught a glimpse of her own future as Robert's partner. And it wasn't something she liked. She realized that whereas she had been happy to be Robert's mistress when she believed that his relationship with his wife had irrevocably broken down, she was not content to remain so knowing that Robert and Kathy still had feelings for one another. She wanted to be loved exclusively. She did not want to share Robert's love with another woman.
And it was only now, a couple of hours later, that the enormity of the decision she'd made was sinking in: She'd told Robert and Kathy that she'd made a mistake, a terrible mistake. "I love you, Robert. As much as Kathy loves you. But I cannot have you. Go back to your wife. If she'll take you, that is."
And he had. Without an argument. Without a fight. With barely a word of protest.
But she'd been lying: She did love him as much as Kathy did ... maybe even more.
After Kathy and Robert Walker left, Stephanie wandered around the condo for a few minutes, arms wrapped tightly across her stomach, which was suddenly cramping with tension. She felt light-headed and breathless, and there were tiny black spots dancing before her eyes.
She stepped into the tiny, sterile kitchen and made herself a cup of camomile tea—she definitely hadn't needed caffeine at the moment— and she knew that if she had a single alcoholic drink it would go straight to her head, and right at that moment she needed to be thinking clearly.
Cupping the steaming cup of aromatic tea in both hands, she wandered back into the room where, only moments before, her lover and his wife had been sitting. She could see the depression in the cushions at each end of the couch. Robert's Christmas presents to her lay abandoned on the floor, a bouquet of flowers already drooping in the overheated condo. Above them a single pink balloon bobbed against the ceiling.
What was she going to do? She looked around the room. With the exception of the presents Robert had brought, and the small Christmas tree, there was nothing festive about it. She hadn't had a chance to hang decorations this year, and the few cards she had received she'd stuck haphazardly up on the fridge. Was she now sentenced to sit at home over Christmas ... just as she had done last year? She'd been miserably lonely, and though she would admit it to no one, she'd cried every day.
What was she going to do?
Her last words to Kathy had been that she was going to go home to her family. She'd said the words quickly, casually ... but even as she was saying them, she guessed that it was impossible. It was too late to book tickets. Or was it? How many people really wanted to travel on Christmas Eve?
And once the thought had entered her mind, Stephanie suddenly knew that she wanted to go home, back to Madison, Wisconsin, and spend Christmas surrounded by light and life, too much food, and too many children.
Anything but spend Christmas alone in an empty house in Boston.
Leaving her tea on the arm of the chair, she raced upstairs and powered up her laptop. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she had waited impatiently for the Apple icon to blink.
It had taken her only a few seconds to log into Orbitz. Stephanie rarely booked her own flights—whenever she had to travel, the company made all the arrangements, and electronic tickets and an itinerary landed in her in-box. She navigated quickly through the site. All she had to do was choose her starting city, her destination, the dates she wanted to travel on and enter her credit-card details. Simple. Maybe she would make it home in time for Christmas dinner. Her parents would be thrilled.
She quickly discovered there were no flights directly to Madison.
Her cell rang, and she jumped, almost knocking the laptop to the floor. It was Izzie.
"Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! Dave and I are going for a drink, and we wanted to know ..."
The tone of Stephanie's voice instantly alerted her friend.
"What happened?" Izzie demanded.
"Kathy Walker was just here. She found out ... about Robert and me."
The phone crackled with Izzie's gasp of horror.
"Then, the triangle was completed when Robert turned up."
Stephanie suddenly found herself smiling. "Talk about a nightmare scenario."
"What ... what happened?"
"What you always said would happen: He went back to his wife."
"Bastard!" Izzie said grimly. "That's what they all do. Bastard!"
"Well, actually, I sort of pushed him in that direction. I didn't want him, Izzie. I suddenly realized I didn't want to become like Kathy Walker. So, he's gone."
"And you. What about you? How are you doing?"
"I'm doing okay," Stephanie said, and was surprised to find that it was the truth. It was as if a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders. "But you know what I'd really like to do: I'd like to go home for Christmas. I want to spend Christmas with my family."
"Well, do it," Izzie said decisively.
"I'm trying. I'm sitting here looking at Orbitz, but there are no flights left to Madison," she said bitterly. "So I guess I'm stuck."
"No, you're not. What's the closest airport to Madison?"
"What's the closest big airport?"
"Chicago. But that's a really long drive."
"You really never make your own arrangements, do you?"
"No, not really." Stephanie's fingers danced across the keys. "There are a bunch of seats left on flights to Chicago: United, Delta, US Airways, American...."
"Good. See if you can get a flight into Milwaukee that connects in Chicago," Izzie said decisively. "This late, it'll probably cost a lot...."
"Izzie, I'll pay for first class if I have to."
"Then you'll definitely get a seat. Look, find a seat. Book it. Dave and I are on our way over. We'll drive you to the airport."
"It'll ruin your Christmas Eve. I'll get a cab."
"On Christmas Eve!" Izzie snapped. "Don't be ridiculous. We're on our way." And she hung up.
By the time Izzie, with a sullen Dave in tow, had turned up at Stephanie's condo in Jamaica Plain, Stephanie had managed to book a United ticket to Milwaukee's General Mitchell Airport with a quick layover in Chicago. She'd bought first class—an outrageous extravagance of over a thousand dollars—but after what she'd been through, she deserved it. Her only concern was that the timing of the two flights was incredibly tight. If the Boston flight was delayed by even an hour, she would miss her connection, and then she'd be doomed to spend Christmas Eve and probably Christmas Day in a grim hotel near O'Hare Airport.
It had taken her less than ten minutes to pack, throwing in underwear, a couple of pairs of jeans, a few sweaters, a yoga outfit, and a little black dress ... just in case. She didn't need to take much more; she had a closet of clothes in Wisconsin. When she'd initially come to Boston, she'd been desperately homesick for the first two years and had taken every opportunity to head home, often twice or even three times a year. It simply didn't make any sense to keep dragging the same bulky clothes back and forth, so she'd finally left a huge suitcase full of clothes in a closet. Her mother had been delighted, and the last time she'd been home, she'd discovered that her mother had hung up the clothes and laid out the rest in her childhood bureau, which still sported a scuffed Pippi Longstocking sticker on one of the drawers.
Stephanie had just finishing dressing in her preferred traveling outfit—black jeans, black polo-neck sweater, and three-quarter-length black leather coat, all chosen to show no stains and splashes—when Izzie arrived.
When Stephanie opened the hall door, Izzie hugged her.
"Don't take this the wrong way," the petite blonde said softly, "but I'm glad it's over. You're finally free. Now you can move on with your life."
"I'm glad too," Stephanie whispered. And, in that moment, she had meant it.
Stephanie was settling into her window seat when she felt her cell vibrate in her pocket. Probably Izzie. She pulled out the phone, leaned against the window, and hit the Answer button without looking at the caller ID.
"Hello?" she whispered, cupping her hand over her mouth.
"Stephanie? Stephanie? Is that you?"
The voice stopped her cold. It was Robert. She felt her breath catch, and her mouth was suddenly filled with cotton.
She hit the End button, abruptly aware that her heart was racing. A couple of hours ago, he hadn't been able to look her in the face as he'd slunk from the room. And now he had the gall to phone her!
The phone buzzed again.
Stephanie hit the Decline button and shoved the phone in her pocket. What did he want? To apologize? Possibly. To get her to reconsider? Probably.
The phone buzzed again, but this time she knew it was a voice mail alert. It could stay there until after Christmas, she decided. In fact, she might just as well delete it without listening to it, because she was finished with him. Finished with his big lies and small promises. (Continues...)
Excerpted from the Consequences by Colette Freedman. Copyright © 2014 Colette Freedman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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