THE PERFECT MARRIAGE IS THE PERFECT ILLUSION.
Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.
But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?
Forcing us to ask ourselves just how well we know those who are closest to us, Best Day Ever crackles with dark energy, spinning ever tighter toward its shocking conclusion. In the vein of The Couple Next Door, Kaira Rouda weaves a gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal dark enough to destroy a marriage…or a life.
Praise for Best Day Ever
“Highly entertaining and truly surprising!” —Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Year
“Best Day Ever is a creepy, spine-tingling and utterly addictive tale of domestic suspense.” —Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, bestselling authors of The Good Widow
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|Publisher:||Graydon House Books|
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Best Day Ever
By Kaira Rouda
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Kaira Rouda
All rights reserved.
I glance at my wife as she climbs into the passenger seat, sunlight bouncing off her shiny blond hair like sparklers lit for the Fourth of July, and I am bursting with confidence. Everything is as it should be.
Here we are, just the two of us, about to spend the weekend at our lake house. Today represents everything I've worked for, that we have built together. The sun blasts through my driver's side window with such intensity I feel the urge to hold my hand up to the side of my face to shield my eyes, even though my sunglasses are dark and should be doing the job. Under any other circumstances, on any other day, they would be, I know. But today, something is different between us; some strange tension pulses through the still air of the car's interior. I cannot see it, but it's here. I'd like to name it. Discover its source and eliminate it.
Sure, this morning has been hectic. It's a Friday, and Fridays always seem the most frenzied when you have kids. Getting the boys up and dressed, and then dropping them off at their immaculately landscaped and highly ranked red brick elementary school where they will no doubt excel, in first and third grade respectively. Truth be told though, I usually have little to do with the scenario I just outlined. Mia, my wife, handles all the tasks pertaining to the boys each morning. We're a traditional suburban household in that respect. In the morning, I make coffee, shower, dress and leave for work before the boys awaken. Yes, mine is quite a selfish and single-minded pursuit on most days.
That's another reason why today is so special. I drove the boys to school, reminded them that the babysitter would be picking them up afterwards. When I returned to the house, I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I can be helpful when I want to be, although I don't want to remind Mia of this fact as she may come to expect it. Ha! Dishes finished, I had called up the stairs to Mia, urging her to hurry. We haven't had a weekend together, just the two of us alone, for more than a year. This day was going to be just for us, and it was time to go.
She called back, her voice floating like a butterfly down the stairs, asking for my help with her luggage. The next moment, I found myself lugging two huge suitcases down the grand main staircase of our home. She followed behind me with a laundry basket filled with who knows what.
"Staying a while?" I teased. She blushed, embarrassed by her notorious over-packing. But I didn't complain. It was her day. She was free to over-pack away. Once we got everything loaded into the trunk of the car, just as Mia was starting to relax, the packing part over, that was when my phone rang. I shouldn't have answered it. But onward. Taking the call was just one small mistake in a day that's destined to be brilliant. From the driver's seat, I finally finish syncing my phone with the car's system. I find the playlist I created for my wife. All her favorite songs will play during our drive. Music is such an important part of keeping romance alive.
And now, we're getting on the road. Mia turns toward me and smiles. She has a perfect smile: half moon-shaped, with glistening white teeth. My smile is more of a rectangle; no matter how hard I try, I appear to be smirking, I know that. But my teeth are perfect, thanks to the cosmetic dentist. I grin back.
She loves me so much, and of course the same can be said for me. We've been together almost ten years now. We know each other's best qualities, and we know each other's dark sides. Although to be quite honest about it, I'm not sure Mia has what you'd call a dastardly alter ego. Her dark side is simply grumpy, and it typically only appears when she is tired, or when one of our boys faces a rough patch. For my part, I wonder if Mia thinks I have a dark side? Most likely, as far as she knows, I am just her dear loving husband.
Today, though, this morning, right now, she is exuding energy; it oozes from her pores, from her flawless face. It's the cause of the strange pulsing between us, I decide.
"You seem wound up, honey," I say. I want to pat her leg and tell her to relax but I don't. Despite her odd mood she is still beautiful, almost perfect in every way.
"Do I? I guess I'm just excited," she says, confirming my assessment while stretching her hands toward the front windshield. The diamond from her wedding ring flashes in the over-bright sunshine as if imitating her energy.
"I know you are, honey. But we've got a long drive ahead of us, so try to relax. Let's make today the best day ever." I attempt to add the proper lilt to my voice. I need her to believe I am just as happy and carefree as she is. That driving up to our lake house for the first time this season is the most exciting thing I could ever imagine doing on any day, ever.
"In that case, can I request a small detour? There's a little bakery in Port Clinton, just before the turnoff to Lakeside. I'd like to stop there on the way in. For croissants for tomorrow morning. Do you remember the spot? We won't arrive in time to get croissants for breakfast today, but tomorrow's almost as good," she says. Thankfully, her bright blue eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses that match mine. When I glance at her, we cannot make eye contact. Not really.
I wonder if the comment about not arriving in time is directed at me, and realize it is. Of course. I am the one who took the phone call just as we were walking out the door. I shouldn't have. It wasn't anything new, but I had still held out hope that it would be. Instead, I spent thirty minutes on a worthless call with a headhunter, and, I know, made us late. The croissants will be gone by the time we arrive at the bakery; I know this, too.
"Yes, I remember the place. Ugly strip mall, but sure, we'll stop. Not worried about gluten anymore, I take it?" I say. For a while, Mia and her doctor du jour thought her upset stomach, weight loss, and other intestinal issues were caused by gluten. I was relieved when she decided not to hop on that fad after giving up wheat for a few weeks with no change. She still insists on a vegetarian existence, leaving her with few choices when we go out to dinner and endless questions for the wait staff. It's annoying. But I push those thoughts away. My wife is just doing her best.
"Turns out gluten isn't the culprit," Mia says. She smiles. "So yes, I'd love to stop. If it's okay with you, of course."
Stopping on our way to the lake house at a bakery that will, no doubt, be out of croissants was not on my agenda today. She knows I'm a man of action and when I have a plan, I follow it. I just want to get up there already. But today, I'm being a great husband. Mia's every wish is my command.
"As you wish, my dear." I am the perfect husband. I smile as one of the songs from our early dating days comes on. It was the soundtrack to our first night together. Innocent Mia, a virgin even after four years of college, somehow untouched by all of those lecherous fraternity guys. She was waiting for someone older, someone sophisticated, someone who could take care of her. She found that in me.
I had reserved a suite in the finest hotel in downtown Columbus, with views of the river sparkling below. We'd been dating a couple of months by then and I'd waited as long as any man can be expected to. Mia was nervous, uncomfortably sitting on the edge of the red and white striped upholstered chair, gripping her champagne flute like a weapon she'd use for protection. She wore a light blue dress that matched her eyes. The dress slipped easily over her head once I'd pulled her to me, asked her to dance. The memories of that night are vivid. It took me until the sun was coming up to convince her to give me the gift of her virginity. She worried about the promise she'd made to her mother. I told her if a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear it, then did it really fall? She laughed and I slid on top of her, pinning her arms gently above her head, pressing my mouth firmly against hers. And, she fell. I lick my lips at the memory and shift in my seat.
"Who were you talking to on the phone? The office?" she asks as I back out of our driveway.
"Who else? Sometimes I think they can't last a moment without me," I say. Some sort of emotion crosses Mia's face before she turns toward the passenger side window. I guess we're finished with that topic. I should apologize for the delay, but I don't. An amicable silence falls between us.
Personally, I have to admit I love the implied success I feel being able to drive out of my very nice neighborhood, my wife by my side, on a Friday morning on my way to my second home. I am driving a Ford Flex, navy exterior, by choice. Supporting America while demonstrating that my ego does not require a fancy sports car or luxury sedan. No, I am secure in my status and a family man, all rolled into one. The American dream, that's what we're living right here.
My wife is still looking out her window. She seems to be taking in the signs of spring around us. The lawns are greening up nicely and the trees, so stark for the long, dreary months of winter, are budding and flowering. Our suburb is becoming a lovely place to live again, just in time. We pull onto the freeway heading north through downtown Columbus, and I feel a pride for my hometown that extends beyond the college sports franchise. It's growing up. People from all over consider us a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place now, not just a college town or a field of grazing cattle. I don't have to say Columbus comma Ohio anymore. We are on the weather maps internationally as the city in Ohio. Our weather matters more than Cleveland's or Cincinnati's does. That, to me, is a sign we have arrived as a great city.
Ironically, as we zip through the periphery of downtown, skyscrapers slicing the clear blue sky, we are headed to farm country. Most of Ohio still is agrarian, it seems, no matter how much Columbus has changed. My wife and I, we spend our time in the bubble of suburbia mostly, cutting through the city on our way out of town. We really should explore downtown more, I realize. There always seems to be so much more to do in a day than you can ever accomplish. That's why I make plans.
Mia shifts in her seat, angling her body toward me as much as possible for someone strapped in by her seat belt, and asks, "Do you really think the strawberries will take hold? I mean, they looked like they were from the photos Buck sent me. They might even have grown a little. But things can change." I notice she holds her phone in her hands now; her lovely fingers, accented by a cheery red — strawberry red — fingernail polish, move quickly across the small keypad. She was a copywriter at an advertising agency when I met her, and she has amazing keyboard speed still.
"It says strawberry plants should be bought from a reputable nursery. I'm just not sure I picked the right one. And they need deep holes, wide enough to accommodate the entire root system without bending the roots. Very persnickety plants," she continues. Her lips are pursed together, as if she has eaten a sour berry.
"I'm sure they're fine," I reassure her. "No one could have nurtured them more than you did." A black sports car passes us on our right, only a flash of metal actually, because it's moving so quickly. I hadn't even seen it coming in my rearview mirror. It's funny how things can sneak up on you, appear out of nowhere.
"It's like having babies again, or puppies," she says, ignoring the racecar as I turn on my blinker and slide us out of the passing lane. "Don't plant too deep, it says. The roots should be covered, but the crown should be right at soil surface. I should call Buck and ask him to check on the crowns."
She glances at me, no doubt catching my smirk. First, what kind of name is B-U-C-K? I mean, really. But despite his ridiculous name, Buck Overford is a nice enough guy, I guess. He's our next-door neighbor at the lake, a widower even though he's about my age, who likes to talk gardening with my wife. I should be clear. I'm forty-five, and Mia is only thirty-three. Buck is closer to my age than hers, maybe even a bit older. I look younger anyway. Not that we're old geezers by any stretch. Buck does have this affinity for gardening, which to me is a woman's thing, so that makes him older, weaker than me in my book.
At least gardening is what Mia tells me she and Buck have been talking about since we met him last summer. It was just after our moving truck had left. He brought over a bottle of Merlot, a nice one if memory serves, and the three of us spent a lovely evening together on the screened porch until it was time for us to find our boys and get them ready for bed. The boys were free-range chickens up at the lake, had been every summer we'd rented. Now that we were owners, members, they'd increased their span of wandering, it seemed.
There were countless wholesome activities at the lake to draw their attention, from sailing lessons to shuffleboard, skateboarding to bike riding. Sometimes, we'd find them sitting by the edge of the lake, skipping rocks, like they'd stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It was all perfectly safe, these endless summertime activities that delighted our boys and made them beg us to head to Lakeside whenever possible. When it was bedtime though, finding them, corralling them and then getting them into bed was a process best left for family only. We never wanted witnesses to that exhausting exercise.
"Right, I don't need to bother Buck. I can check the crowns as soon as we get there," she says in my direction before returning her attention to her phone screen.
"Good call," I say, checking the rearview mirror for any more speeding sports cars. I had an expensive sports car before, of course. I'll likely have one again one day when my lifestyle dictates a change, I muse, taking in the interior of my sensible Ford Flex. Room for the whole family, as many strawberry plants as Mia could handle planting. I can haul as much of the boys' sports equipment as they can throw my way. It is a sensible, practical car. For a responsible family man. It fits me perfectly, this car. Me and my hot, newly skinny again wife. If she loses any more weight, though, she'll disappear. It's a real shame about the nausea she's been struggling with. The latest doctor is convinced it's stress-related. He told her to meditate.
"Did you know my strawberry plants' runners are called 'daughter' plants?" she asks. The air between us pulses, I feel it. Ping.
"No, I didn't," I say, taking a deep breath before I realize I am doing it. It's funny how the absence of a daughter catches your breath at the strangest times, over the silliest topics. "No 'son' plants? How sexist."
"I still wish we'd tried," Mia says quietly, stirring the age-old pot. Just that topic, that old leathery shoe of a stew makes me swallow something bitter. I cough, trying to clear my throat, my dark mind.
"Can we not have that old discussion today, of all days?" I ask. I focus on the farmland beginning to open up on either side of the road. We're finally out of the reaches of the city, finally free from the responsibility, the shiny office buildings, bespoke suits, and country clubs that that part of civilization values. I would miss golf if I had to live in the country, of course. And many other things. Country visits are for weekends, a touch-base with our more rural and simple selves. Not a place to live full time. I hope we aren't going to disagree this early in our country excursion.
Mia turns to me and I can hear her gentle, agreeable smile in her next words. "Of course, no fighting. This is our happy day, the start of a wonderful weekend. I just didn't realize until this moment about strawberry seedlings and 'daughter' plants. I should have grown peppers." Her voice is soft, a stealth dagger to my heart. This statement, the peppers, is a jab. Sure, we could have tried to get pregnant one more time, but I was convinced it would be another boy. We had two of those, perfect little specimens, each a miniature version of me, as they should be. I realize Mia would enjoy seeing a little version of herself walking around this world, following in her footsteps. But why tempt fate?
Excerpted from Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda. Copyright © 2017 Kaira Rouda. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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