From the outside looking in, Lauren Delaney has a life to envy—a successful career, a solid marriage to a prominent surgeon and two beautiful daughters who are off to good colleges. But on her twenty-fourth wedding anniversary Lauren makes a decision that will change everything.
Lauren won’t pretend things are perfect anymore. She defies the controlling husband who has privately mistreated her throughout their marriage and files for divorce. And as she starts her new life she meets a kindred spirit—a man who is also struggling with the decision to end his unhappy marriage.
But Lauren’s husband wants his “perfect” life back, and his actions are shocking. Facing an uncertain future, Lauren discovers an inner strength she didn’t know she had as she fights for the love and happiness she deserves.
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Today was Lauren Delaney's twenty-fourth wedding anniversary and there wouldn't be a twenty-fifth. To many it appeared Lauren had a perfect life but the truth was something she kept to herself. She had just been to see her lawyer and now she needed a little time to think. She headed for one of her favorite places. She needed the solace of a beautiful garden.
Divine Redeemer Catholic Church was an old church that had survived all of the earthquakes since the big one — the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Lauren had only been inside the building a couple of times, but never for mass. Her mother had been Catholic, but she hadn't been active. The church had a beautiful garden where parishioners often walked and there were several benches where you could sit and pray or meditate. Lauren was on her way home to Mill Valley from her job at Merriweather Foods and she stopped there, something she did frequently. There were no brochures explaining the genesis of the garden or even the fact that the church sat on such a generous plot of land for Northern California, but she'd happened upon an old priest once and he'd told her one of the priests in the early 1900s was a fanatic about growing things. Even though he'd been dead for decades, the church kept the garden going. They even preserved a large garden behind the beautiful flowers for fruits and vegetables, which they donated to food banks or used to feed hungry people in poorer parishes.
Divine Redeemer's parish just outside of Mill Valley, California didn't have many hungry people. It was an upper-class area. It was where she lived.
She was very well off. Richer than she'd ever imagined by her family's standards, yet her husband ranted about his low pay. He was a prosperous surgeon raking in over a million a year but he didn't have a yacht or a plane, which irked him. He spent a great deal of time managing and complaining about his finances.
She would be leaving him as soon as she could finalize the details. She had spent an hour with her attorney, Erica Slade, today. Erica had asked, "So, is this going to be it, Lauren?"
"The marriage was over many years ago," Lauren said. "All that's left is for me to tell him I'm leaving. I'm getting my ducks in a row."
They would be spending the evening at a charity auction and dinner. For that she was so grateful. There would be no staring at each other over a starched white tablecloth searching for things to say, no watching Brad check his phone and text all through the meal. As he was fond of reminding her, he was an important man. He was in demand. She was nothing.
If she ever received a call or text, it was from one of her daughters or her sister. But if they knew she was out, they wouldn't expect a response. Except maybe her eldest daughter, Lacey. She had inherited her father's lack of boundaries and sense of entitlement — it was all about her. Her younger daughter, Cassie, had, perhaps unfortunately, inherited Lauren's cautious and reticent nature. Lauren and Cassie didn't like conflict, didn't step on toes.
"When are you going to stand up for yourself, Lauren," Brad had been known to say to her. "You're so spineless." Of course, he meant she should stand up to anyone but him.
Oh, wouldn't Brad be surprised when she finally did. And he'd be angry. She knew people would inevitably ask, Why now? After twenty-four years? Because it had been twenty-four hard years. It had been hard since the beginning. Not every minute of it, of course. But overall, her marriage to Brad had never been a good situation. She spent the first several years thinking she could somehow make it better, the next several years thinking she probably didn't have it so bad since he was only emotionally and verbally abusive, and the last ten years thinking she couldn't wait to escape once her daughters were safely raised. Because, the truth was he was only going to get more cantankerous and abusive with age.
The first time she'd seriously considered leaving him, the girls were small. "I'll get custody," he said. "I'll fight for it. I'll prove you're unfit. I have the money to do it, you don't." She'd almost done it when the girls were in junior high. He'd been unfaithful and she was sure it hadn't been the first time he'd strayed, just the first time he'd been caught. She'd taken the girls to her sister's cramped little house where the three of them shared a bedroom and the girls begged to go home. She returned and demanded marriage counseling. He admitted to a meaningless fling or two because his wife, he said, was not at all enthusiastic about sex anymore. And the counselor cautioned her about throwing away the father of her children, explained that the repercussions could be very long term. She found another counselor and it happened again — the counselor sympathized with Brad. Only Lauren could see that Brad was a manipulator who could turn on the charm when it suited him.
Rather than trying yet another counselor, Brad took the family on a luxurious vacation to Europe. He pampered the girls and ultimately Lauren gave the marriage yet another chance. Then a couple of years later he gave her chlamydia and blamed her. "Don't be ridiculous, Lauren. You picked it up somewhere and gave it to me! Don't even bother to deny it."
She'd told him she wanted a divorce and he had said, "Fine. You'll pay the price. I'm not going to make it easy for you."
Knowing what was at stake, she moved into the guest room instead.
Days became weeks, weeks became months. They went back to marriage counseling. In no time at all Lauren suspected their marriage counselor had an agenda and favored Brad. She helped him make excuses, covered for him, pushed Lauren to admit to her manipulative nature. Lauren suspected him of sleeping with the counselor. He told her she'd become sick with paranoia.
By the time Lacey was in college and Cassie was applying to colleges, Brad was worse than ever. Controlling, domineering, secretive, verbally abusive, argumentative. God, why didn't he want her to just leave? Clearly, he hated her.
But he told her if she left him he wouldn't pay college tuition. "No judge can make me. I can be stuck with some alimony but not support payments. And not tuition. When they're over eighteen they're on their own. So go then," he'd said. "You'll be responsible for cutting them off."
The last few years had been so lonely. She had spent a lot of time worrying that by staying with a man like Brad she had taught her daughters a dreadful lesson. She'd done her best with them but she couldn't make them un-see how their own mother had lived her life.
She'd taken a few hours from work to meet with the lawyer, laying out plans, creating her list and checking things off. The lawyer had said, "He's had you running scared for years. We have laws in this state. He can't cut you off and freeze you out. I'm not saying it will be easy or painless, but you will not starve and your share of the marital assets will be delivered."
It was time. She was finally ready to go.
Lauren inhaled the smell of spring flowers. This was one of the best times of year in Northern California, the Bay Area and inland, when everything was coming to life. The vineyards were greening up and the fruit trees were blossoming. She loved flowers; her grandmother had been a ferocious gardener, turning her entire yard into a garden. Flowers soothed her. She needed a garden right now.
Lauren heard the squeaking of wheels and looked up to see a man pushing a wheelbarrow along the path. He stopped not too far from her. He had a trowel, shovel and six plants in the wheelbarrow. He gave her a nod, and went about the business of replacing a couple of plants. Then he sat back on his heels, looked at her and smiled. "Better?" he asked.
"Beautiful," she said with a smile.
"Is this your first time in this garden?" he asked.
"No, I've been here a number of times," Lauren said. "Are you the gardener?"
"No," he said with a laugh. "Well, yes, I guess I am if I garden. But I'm just helping out today. I noticed a few things needed to be done ..."
"Oh, is this your church?"
"Not this one, a smaller church south of here. I'm afraid I've fallen away ..."
"And yet you still help out the parish? You're dedicated."
"I admire this garden," he said. He rotated and sat, drawing up his knees. "Why do you come here?"
"I love gardens," she said. "Flowers in general make me happy."
"You live in the right part of the country, then. Do you keep a garden?"
"No," she said, laughing uncomfortably. "My husband has very specific ideas about how the landscaping should look."
"So he does it?"
Get dirt under his nails? Hah! "Not at all. He hires the people who do it and gives them very firm orders. I don't find our garden nearly as beautiful as this."
"I guess you have nothing to say about it, then," he said.
"Not if it's going to create conflict," Lauren said. "But it's kind of a secret hobby of mine to find and visit gardens. Beautiful gardens. My grandmother was a master gardener — both her front and backyard were filled with flowers, fruits and vegetables. She even grew artichokes and asparagus. It was incredible. There was no real design — it was like a glorious jungle."
"When you were young?"
"And when I was older, too. My children loved it."
"Did your mother garden?" he asked.
"Very little — she was a hardworking woman. But after my grandparents passed away, she lived in their house and inherited the garden. I'm afraid she let it go."
"It's a hereditary thing, don't you think?" he asked. "Growing up, our whole family worked in the garden. Big garden, too. Necessary garden. My mother canned and we had vegetables all winter. Now she freezes more than cans and her kids rob her blind. I think she does it as much for all of us as herself."
"I would love that so much," Lauren said. Then she wondered how the residents of Mill Valley would react to seeing her out in the yard in her overalls, hoeing and spreading fresh, stinky fertilizer. It made her laugh to herself.
"Funny?" he asked.
"I work for a food processor. Merriweather. And they don't let me near the gardens, which are primarily research gardens."
"So, what do you do?" he asked.
"I cook," she said. "Product development. Testing and recipes. We test the products regularly and have excellent consumer outreach. We want to show people how to use our products."
"Are you a nutritionist?" he asked.
"No, but I think I'm becoming one. I studied chemistry. But what I do is not chemistry. In fact, it's been so long ..."
He frowned. "Processed foods. A lot of additives," he said. "Preservatives."
"We stand by their safety and it's a demanding, fast-paced world. People don't have time to grow their food, store it, make it, serve it." His cell phone rang and he pulled it from his pocket. "See what I mean?" she said, his phone evidence of the pace of modern life.
But he didn't even look at it. He switched it off. "What, besides flowers, makes you happy?" he asked.
"I like my job. Most of the time. Really, ninety percent of the time. I work with good people. I love to cook."
"All these domestic pursuits. You must have a very happy husband."
She almost said nothing makes Brad happy, but instead she said, "He cooks too — and thinks he's better at it than I am. He's not, by the way."
"So if you weren't a chemist cooking for a food company, what would you be? A caterer?"
"No, I don't think so," she said. "I think trying to please a client who can afford catering seems too challenging to me. I once thought I wanted to teach home economics but there is no more home ec."
"Sure there is," he said, frowning. "Really?"
She shook her head. "A nine or twelve-week course, and it's not what it once was. We used to learn to sew and bake. Now there's clothing design as an elective. Some schools offer cooking for students who'd like to be chefs. It's not the same thing."
"I guess if you want homemaking tips, there's the internet," he said.
"That's some of what I do," she said. "Video cooking demonstrations." "Is it fun?"
She nodded after thinking about it for a moment.
"Maybe I should do video gardening demos."
"What makes you happy?" she surprised herself by asking.
"Just about anything," he said with a laugh. "Digging in the ground. Shooting hoops with my boys when they're around. Fishing. I love to fish. Quiet. I love quiet. I love art and design. There's this book — it's been a long time since I read it — it's about the psychology of happiness. It's the results of a study. The premise that initiated the study was what makes one person able to be happy while another person just can't be happy no matter what. Take two men — one is a survivor of the Holocaust and goes on to live a happy, productive life while the other goes through a divorce and he can hardly get off the couch or drag himself to work for over a decade. What's the difference between them? How can one person generate happiness for himself while the other can't?"
"Depression?" she asked.
"Not always," he said. "The study pointed out a lot of factors, some we have no control over and some are learned behaviors. Interesting. It's not just a choice but I'm a happy guy." He grinned at her.
She noticed, suddenly, how good-looking this man was. He looked like he was in his forties, a tiny amount of gray threading his dark brown hair at his temples. His eyes were dark blue. His hands were large and clean for a gardener. "Now what makes a volunteer gardener decide to read psychology?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Well, I read a lot. I like to read. I think I got that from my father. I can zone out everything except what's happening in my head. Apparently I go deaf. Or so I've been told. By my wife."
"Hyper focus," she said. "Plus, men don't listen to their wives."
"That's what I hear," he said. "I'm married to an unhappy woman so I found this book that was supposed to explain why some schmucks like me are so easy to make happy and some people just have the hardest damn time."
"How'd you find the book?"
"I like to hang out in bookstores ..."
"So do we," she said. "It's one of the few things we both enjoy. Other than that, I don't think my husband and I have much in common."
"That's not a requirement," he said. "I have these friends, Jude and Germain, they are different as night and day." He got to his feet and brushed off the seat of his pants. "They have nothing in common. But they have such a good time together. They laugh all the time. They have four kids so it's compromise all the time and they make it look so easy."
She frowned. "Which one's the girl? Oh! Maybe they're same sex ...?
"Germain is a woman and Jude's a man," he said, laughing. "I have another set of friends, both men, married to each other. We call them the Bickersons. They argue continuously."
"Thus, answering the question about gender."
"I have to go," he said. "But ... My name is Beau."
"Lauren," she said.
"It was fun talking to you, Lauren. So, when do you think you might need to spend time with the flowers next?"
"Tuesday?" she said, posing it as a question.
He smiled. "Tuesday is good. I hope you enjoy the rest of your week."
"Thanks. Same to you." She walked down the path toward her car in the parking lot. He steered his wheelbarrow down the path toward the garden shed.
Lauren made a U-turn, heading back toward him. "Beau!" she called. He turned to face her. "Um ... Let me rethink that. I don't know when I'll be back here but it's not a good idea, you know. We're both married."
"It's just conversation, Lauren," he said.
He's probably a psychopath, she thought, because he looks so innocent, so decent. "Yeah, not a good idea," she said, shaking her head. "But I enjoyed talking to you."
"Okay," he said. "I'm sorry, but I understand. Have a great week."
"You, too," she said.
She walked purposefully to her car and she even looked around. He was in the garden shed on the other side of the gardens. She could hear him putting things away. He wasn't looking to see what she was driving or what her license plate number was. He was a perfectly nice, friendly guy who probably picked up lonely women on a regular basis. Then murdered them and chopped them in little pieces and used them for fertilizer.
She sighed. Sometimes she felt so ridiculous. But she was going to go to the bookstore to look for that book.
Lauren was in a much better mood than usual that evening. In fact, when Brad came home in a state — something about the hospital screwing up his surgery schedule and flipping a couple of his patients without consulting him — she found herself strangely unaffected.
"Are you listening, Lauren?" Brad asked.
"Huh? Oh yes, sorry. Did you get it straightened out?"
"No! I'll be on the phone tonight. Why do you think I'm so irritated? Do you have any idea what my time is worth?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The View from Alameda Island"
Copyright © 2018 Robyn Carr.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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