From the author of Best Day Ever comes another gripping novel of psychological suspense set in an upscale Southern California community, for fans of B. A. Paris and Shari Lapena.
The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect lie.
|Publisher:||Graydon House Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.13(d)|
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I glance at my creation and smile: Behold the dining room table. It is critical to create the proper atmosphere when entertaining, the illusion of perfection. As one of the most important hostesses in The Cove, I can assure you I pull together elegant dinners without a second thought. I know all the key ingredients: arrangements from the best florist in town, tonight white hydrangeas nestled in between succulents, and linens from the exclusive small boutique where everyone must shop to purchase ridiculously expensive tablecloths and napkins, in this case, brushed silk, off-white.
I've outdone myself with this table. This will go down in the record books as a crowning achievement in my life.
I'm kidding, of course. I don't care a smidgen about entertaining. And typically, if I'm going to spend time adorning something, it's going to be myself. Truth be told, the crystal and china pieces on the table were wedding gifts from long forgotten friends, rarely used. I dug them out from the back of the cupboard. Perhaps I am trying a bit too hard, but tonight is special. It's my coming out party so to speak.
After a year of grieving, it's time to step back into my family, or what remains of it and that's precisely my plan. I'm reclaiming the throne, like a queen who has been in exile but returns with pomp and circumstance. I shake my head as I look around my castle. I used to be so proud of this home, something so expensive and so uppity that my mother would never be comfortable stepping foot inside. Good old mom. She taught me everything she knew about how to put yourself first in life. She was ruthless, delighting in bringing others down, including her own daughter. But look around: I'm winning, Mom. I touch the diamond-encrusted heart pendant hanging between my surgically enhanced, perfect breasts. All gifts from my husband in happier times.
My husband David will be so surprised when he arrives home tonight, and he deserves it. He's been full of surprises this year. In fact, I discovered another little secret when a piece of mail arrived at our house last week. Typically, he has his mail sent to his office, says it's easier to pay bills that way. This particular notice from the bank must have just slipped through the cracks. I'm playing along. For now. The letter congratulated David on the purchase of a new home. I must admit, the thought of a fresh start made my heart flutter. I know it will be even bigger, more expensive than this home. I mean, this home was fine when the kids were growing up, but now we need something grander. More fitting of our station in life. We deserve it after all we've been through.
Maybe he'll tell me all about it tonight? That would be wonderful. I'm planning our reconnection dinner and he will announce his surprise. I glance at my platinum watch, enjoying the sparkles of the diamond-encrusted face, until my heart thumps at the time. It's getting late and I have so much more to do. I can't believe I've lost a year in my haze of grief. Sure, some of the haze can be blamed on all of the anti-depressants the doctors made me take. They were both a relief, and a distraction. While I was stuck in bed, at home, my family members have made the most of their time, both so busy in fact I've had trouble keeping up. But not any longer. I'm back, drug-free, and better than ever. I grab the final crystal wine glass from the kitchen counter and walk to the table, glancing out the window as the bright orange sun drops into the deep blue Pacific Ocean. In an instant, the glass topples from my hand and seems to tumble in slow motion as it falls and shatters on the stone floor, sending sound waves echoing through our lifeless house like an earthquake. Shards of glass sprinkle the tops of my bare feet and dot the floor around me while a large chunk of the stem rests under the dining room table, glistening like the blade of a knife.
I fold my arms across my chest for comfort and can't help but admire my ribs poking into my hands, a reminder of how much weight I've lost the last year. Grief is good for the figure. You and I already know thin women get attention, respect in our society. On the few excursions I've made out of the house lately, when I've taken care to dress and apply make-up, I've noticed an uptick in appreciative glances from men. That's nothing new. My whole life I've enjoyed the admiration of the opposite sex.
For months, I've been secretly working out in the garage when David is at work and Betsy at school. Just me and the handsome P90X instructors. My mom would be impressed by my fitness commitment. She never missed a chance to remind me being skinny was the key to our future. And then she'd take my dinner away. She's long gone, died when I was fourteen in a tragic car accident, but she still haunts me. That's the power of the bond between mothers and daughters. It can never be broken, even in death.
But glass can. I stare at my almost-perfect table setting — I even nestled votive candles in crystal holders around the centerpiece and in front of each place setting. Just call me Martha Stewart.
I wonder what I should wear tonight? Here, in the land of expensive designer purses and shoes, most women blend in, their monochromatic coolness anchored by jeans, topped by their perfectly smooth, porcelain faces. I remember my first dinner party at The Cove: me from the south, them from Southern California. I'd worn a yellow silk cocktail dress, my biggest pearls and wrapped a white cashmere pashmina around my shoulders. I was as out of place as a Twinkie at a Weight Watchers meeting. But you know what? All the husbands approved, tired of the sameness they endured in their wives. Back then, David was proud to have me on his arm, proud I stood out like a beautiful f lower in a meadow of boring grass. It's ironic, really: I gave up my dreams to move here, to become the perfect Orange County housewife. I could have been so much more.
This ocean view is why we bought this home all those years ago, scraping together every last dime and tapping into David's trust fund to move into The Cove, the best community in Southern California. We were young parents, and so madly in love. The ocean was romantic, beautiful then. Not deadly and dark and cold.
I feel the rush of heat as my hands clench into fists. Anger and loss, did you ever notice how those emotions mix together? It's a toxic combination. I swallow. I need to focus on the table, the first step of my coming out party. All that's missing from this perfect setting is the fourth wineglass. I have another one, of course. It's almost symbolic. It was Mary's spot at the table, Mary's wineglass that fell to the floor.
Mary who dropped into the sea. I shake my head to quiet the voice.
My therapist Dr. Rosenthal assured me at our last session that it would be a step forward to eat together as a family in the dining room. She wants us to reconnect, and I most always do whatever she says. At our next session I'll happily tell the doctor all about tonight. I am committed to re-energizing my life, reconnecting with my family. I tell her what I want her to know, what she wants to hear. Sure, she's the one with the PhD, but I'm the one with life experience. I'm the heart of this family. That's a mom's place. Perhaps I won't mention the broken glass during our session, although it is emblematic of all that has happened this year since Mary left us. Nothing is right. My husband has thrown his energy into work, he tells me. He's gone all the time these days. Betsy is focused on graduating high school in five short days. I swallow. I push away the silly fear, the nagging sound of my mom's voice telling me Betsy will leave me. It's nonsense. Betsy loves me, would never leave me. I mean it's not like she's brilliant like Mary was, or smart like Mary was. No, Betsy is average. She'll be dependent on me forever, and that's just fine. And David, well, he's buying us a new home. Everyone is getting in line.
The hair at the back of my neck tingles on alert. Someone is watching me. I look out the window and see the five-year-old cherub next door, his round face pushing through a partially open window, his eyes bright and curious. He's up too high. He must have climbed onto a chair. Where is the nanny? Twenty children under the age of eleven die each year because of falls from windows, and another five thousand are critically injured.
Tragic accidents happen all the time. That's why I watched my daughters every moment of their lives, never letting them out of my sight, one way or another, ever. They were like extensions of my arms, a hand for each of them. My little mini-me's.
I glance at the boy next door and then to the ground two stories below. There is nothing to break his fall if he topples out, just a thin strip of cement between his house and ours. I shudder at the thought. We pay astronomical prices to live on top of each other at the coast. Proximity and privilege means it's hard to keep secrets here. Turns out it's also hard to keep friends, and family.
The child is waving at me. I try to help him, pointing and mouthing the word "down" like I'm commanding a dog. I know all of the tragic things that can happen to him. Children who land on a hard surface, such as concrete, are twice as likely to suffer head injuries.
I can't witness this tragedy. Glass or no glass, I tip toe away from the table, waiting for the sharp sensation of a shard slicing through my foot. I'm almost out of the minefield of glass when I realize I have company.
"What are you doing?" Enter stage right: My handsome husband David, thick brown hair, blue eyes, dimpled — a model WASP — is in the kitchen and assessing the scene. He could have been an actor, he's perfectly type-cast as the successful businessman, 1950s to today.
"I made a mess of things." I say before covering my face with my hands. I can't resist leaving a small space between my fingers to peek at him. His smile fades as he drops his briefcase on the kitchen counter. Poor dear.
"Is that broken glass on the dining room floor?"
"Dropped a glass. An accident." I mumble my response from behind my hands.
"Are you hurt?" He takes a few steps, shoes crunching on glass, and he's beside me.
"I think I'm fine, but can you call the people next door?" I drop my hands from my face and point out the window.
"Yes, their child is about to die."
I watch David push his thick dark hair off his forehead, a nervous habit he's acquired in the past year. "What? Stop talking like that. It's creepy."
I sort of scare him these days. I'm not sure why exactly. Perhaps it is my seemingly unshakeable grief ? Is he afraid it will envelope him, too?
He steps closer and looks out the window. I do, too. The child has disappeared, hopefully safe in his nanny's arms. Or he's died from the fall. My mind jumps to terrible conclusions these days but unfortunately, my mind is often correct. Feminine intuition, you really can't beat it. Mine is superbly tuned.
"There's no one there, Jane."
"I can see that. He was there just a minute ago." I hate it when he doesn't believe me and it's been happening more and more these days. I don't like it. That's one of the reasons I stopped taking the pills. I mean, your husband should love you and worship the ground you walk on. He doesn't just now, I know, but he will again. I'm back. He'll see. I take a deep breath. I need to make my husband treasure me again. I will provide him with that opportunity starting tonight. He has been avoiding me. Like I carry a disease. I'm not contagious. Of course, there are other things holding his interest these days. He thinks I don't know about that. Silly man. I force a smile to my lips, blink my eyes.
"Are you hurt?" Now he attempts kindness. What's the old saying: A day late and a dollar short?
"Don't think so." I shrug as he takes my hand. As we touch I wish it was electric like in the long-ago days, but it's not. Of course, all relationships change over time, and we've been married for more than two decades. Back in the early days, that first year together, he would have scooped me into his arms and carried me to a chair. Now that we're a long-time married couple he escorts me old-lady style to the kitchen and pulls out a barstool. I slide onto the cold, hard, wooden seat.
David checks my feet for glass while I stare at the top of his head. He's blessed with thick, dark brown hair, without a streak of gray. Mary had the same glorious mane of hair. In fact, Mary looks a lot like David, despite the fact she was adopted. Isn't that funny? Two daughters, one who looks just like my husband, the other, Betsy, our biological daughter, who looks like a watered-down version of me. Perfect, isn't it?
"You're not cut. I'll sweep up the glass. Why don't you go put socks on? Your feet are freezing."
I slide off the barstool. "Thanks for coming to my rescue, handsome." I bat my eyes at him and slowly lick my bottom lip. I should win a domestic Golden Globe. Oh come on. You know as well as I do that men love to be flattered. David's no exception. Tell a man he's handsome, smart, strong, or, the doozy, the best you've ever had in bed, and well, they'll love you at least in that moment. I just need to win him back, make him love me again. And I know I can do it. He loved me once and deep down, he still does. For now, I'll just kill him with kindness. It's the Southern Belle in me. You catch more f lies with honey than with vinegar.
See. David f lashes a smile, a crack in the armor, pats my shoulder. I used to have him so well trained. Husbands. You let up just a little and they regress. And then he's back to business. "Are you sure you're alright? You're not overdoing it, are you?"
"I love this, this entertaining, you know that." I never did, actually, and I'm not fine. I'm angry, but I smile. I glance at David, my eyes taking in his cool demeanor, his practiced professional air. We speak in a stilted language now, tip-toeing around each other like we're both surrounded by broken glass. This year has been hard on our marriage in so many different ways. I'm committed to fixing things, to getting us back on track. I know this happens in every relationship. We're just in a down cycle. I'm sure you've been there, too. I'm afraid we're running out of time. Betsy will graduate soon. She needs to see us, her parents, in love. All kids want is happy parents. While she's at community college going to class, she should imagine us here, at home, waiting to share dinner together each evening, a model of marital bliss.
I hope we can present a united front for her this week. It's always best to hang onto the one you know, at least until you find something better, that's what my mom told me. And we were so good together, David and I. Meant to be. "You set the table for four. That's just creepy. Are you trying to upset us?" he asks, his voice thick with emotion.
Is it anger, too? I don't know.
"No, I'm trying to have a family dinner. Dr. Rosenthal told me to. I'm sorry, I must have made a mistake. Subconscious. I miss her so much." I look out the window. It's safe now because it's dark outside and the ocean is invisible. All I see is my ref lection. Tight, form-fitting white t-shirt, sparkling heart. I do look good.
"How do you make that kind of mistake? Really Jane?" David's shaking his head. I need to woo him not disappoint him and I should try to refrain from spooking him.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to, darling." I dig my fingernails into the palm of my right hand and smile at my husband. David's watching me admire my ref lection. What does he think when he sees me? He can't deny that I'm beautiful, but I know he doesn't see me with the same loving thoughts of the past, that much I know is true. We all change especially in the face of unimaginable tragedy like we've been through. It's understandable. That's why I'm giving him one last chance. Starting tonight.
I turn to face him and take a step closer. He crosses his arms in front of his chest, tilts his head. His jaw is clenched, eyes dark. He thinks he's a tough guy. I take another step toward him and he backs away. Ha!
I smile and ask, "Let's start over. This is a special night. Darling, do you know when Betsy will be home? She knows how important tonight is to me." Truth be told, I'm not sure I told her about our dinner. But she's a senior in high school, she still lives in my home. She should be home for family dinner. This is part of my plan to do everything I can to make this graduation week extra special, for both David and Betsy. I hope Betsy knows that even though Mary is gone, we are still a family. None of this is easy, it never has been. I mean, it's hardest for me trying to be so self less, the perfect wife and the perfect mother. I spoiled the girls, of course. Sometimes when you give them everything, they take you for granted. My mom warned me about that, too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Favorite Daughter"
Copyright © 2019 Kaira Rouda.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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