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It was just the kind of day that never failed to depress her, even when she woke up feeling good. Today, the sense of impending disaster—the vague feeling of panic that had seized her when she first woke up—only worsened as the temperature skyrocketed and the hot, wet air closed around her like a straitjacket.
August in Canaan, New Jersey. Temperature, 93 degrees, humidity, 97 percent, and both climbing.
Canaan, New Jersey, where there were only two decent weeks a year—one in the spring and the other in the fall—and the rest of the time it was either too hot and muggy or too soul-numbing cold.
Canaan, where MaryAnne Carpenter had been born, and where she’d grown up, and where she’d gotten married, and where she’d had her children, and where, she thought wryly, it was beginning to look as if she was going to die.
If she wasn’t dead already—which, this morning, seemed a definite possibility. And maybe not such a bad possibility, she reflected as she sipped at the coffee that had grown cold in the chipped mug. Except that if she was dead, then that meant she was now in Heaven and was due to spend eternity in a shabby two-bedroom house surrounded by a scraggly strip of brownish lawn, with a backyard just large enough to hold a rusting barbecue, some stained plastic lawn furniture, and a creaking swing set that neither of her kids had used for at least two years.
Obviously, if she was dead, this wasn’t Heaven and she must have sinned a lot more than she realized.
The back door slammed open, and her daughter’s voice cut through her brooding thoughts. “Isn’t Dad here yet?”
MaryAnne stifled the tart response that rose in her throat, determined not to let her anger and mistrust toward the man she’d married contaminate Alison’s relationship with her father. “He said noon, but you know your father,” she said evenly. “If he’s an hour late, we count him as on time, right?”
Alison unconsciously twisted a lock of her dark brown hair around her forefinger, a habit MaryAnne had first noticed almost the day after she and Alan had separated. Alison glanced at the clock, then flopped into the chair opposite her mother. “So he won’t be here for another forty-five minutes.” The girl sighed. “Just like I told Logan.” She began picking at the curling edge of the Formica-topped kitchen table. “Mom? Can I ask you something?”
The fact that Alison’s eyes didn’t meet hers warned MaryAnne that whatever the question was, she wasn’t going to like it. But since Alison’s thirteenth birthday last month she’d grown used to fielding questions she didn’t quite feel comfortable about answering, so now she steeled herself and nodded. “You know you can always ask me anything you want, sweetheart,” she said.
Alison took a deep breath. “Well, Logan and I are sort of wondering. Are you and Dad going to get back together again?”
Now, how on earth am I going to answer that one? MaryAnne thought. How do I tell her that the last thing in the world I want to do is go back to living with Alan Carpenter?
Except that maybe putting it together with Alan again wasn’t quite the last thing in the world she wanted to do. Maybe—just maybe—it was the only thing she could do, given the circumstances. She realized now that at some level it was what she’d been thinking about all morning, though she still had no answers—for Alison or herself. No answers, just a jumble of feelings that were totally confused.
Confused not only by emotions, but by economics as well.
And economics, she knew, were not a proper basis for a marriage.
Hadn’t she read all the articles in all the women’s magazines on the glories of love?
Hadn’t she read all the stories about the poor couples who found happiness in each other and rose above their poverty?
The novels about women who married for money, only to find true love in the arms of the chauffeur, or the gardener, or the pool man?
Everyone knew that love and money should properly have nothing to do with each other.
Then she’d looked around the house and begun to wonder. The paint on the outside was beginning to peel, and the wallpaper in the living room had finally deteriorated to the point that Logan’s messy fingerprints could no longer be cleaned off.
“Didn’t I tell you you should have painted in the first place?” Alan had asked when she’d called him to plead for enough money to replace the paper. “If you’d been practical at the start, you could just repaint. I just don’t have the money for new paper.”
But you had the money to take Little Miss Blondie to Bermuda, didn’t you? MaryAnne had thought bitterly as she slammed the phone down.
She’d spent the rest of the day in a black rage, but by the next morning she’d calmed down enough to realize that Alan hadn’t had enough money to take Eileen Chandler—or anyone else, for that matter—to Bermuda. Eileen must have paid for the trip herself.
Which had only made her mood dark again, and she’d spent the rest of that day engulfed all over again in the pain of losing her husband to a woman who was younger and prettier than she was, and had plenty of money of her own as well.
The worst part of it was her anger at herself for not having seen the separation coming. How stupidly loyal and trusting she’d been! How naive to believe every word Alan told her about working late so many nights to prove himself ready for a big promotion.
A promotion that would allow them to move into a bigger house in a better neighborhood, to take their first real vacation in years, and even to put away some money so when the kids went to college, they wouldn’t have to plunge themselves into debt.
Blind. She’d been utterly, hopelessly blind—until the night six months ago when Alan had come home late, and without a word of apology or regret, had packed his suitcase and announced he was moving in with another woman.
“It’s not something I can explain,” he’d told her as she sat on the edge of the bed, staring wordlessly at him while tears streamed down her face. “It’s just something that happened. She came in to talk to one of the architects, and something happened between us. Something I couldn’t control.” Finally he’d sat down next to her, gently putting his arms around her and talking quietly, his soft voice and warm brown eyes consoling her at the same time that his words cut into her soul. By the time he left, she was almost convinced that the whole thing was somehow her own fault.
The next morning she’d had to explain to Alison and Logan that their father had gone to live “somewhere else” for a while. She’d evaded all their questions, explaining only that things like this sometimes happened between grown-ups, and that they mustn’t worry about it. Everything would work out for the best.
By the end of the week she’d figured out just how stupid she’d been. There was no way Alan was going to be promoted without going back to school. True, he was a very good draftsman—the best the company had—but for him to go any further in the firm, he was going to have to get a degree in architecture. Why had that never occurred to her in the months he’d been sleeping with Eileen Chandler?
Because she hadn’t wanted it to occur to her, of course. Because she hadn’t wanted to believe that this man, whom she had believed in so completely for the fifteen years of their marriage, could be capable of so cruel a betrayal. From the moment she’d met him, the warmth of his smile and clearness of his eyes had convinced her that he would never lie to her.
Now, he had.
Still, as the months had gone by, she’d somehow refused truly to believe it, kept somehow believing it was a bad dream from which she would awaken, and somehow kept putting off filing for a divorce. The bad dream became reality the evening she finally glimpsed the other woman, very blond, very petite, very elegantly dressed, and very securely wrapped in Alan’s strong right arm.
They were coming out of a restaurant. A very expensive restaurant which was far beyond Alan Carpenter’s modest means.
So, MaryAnne thought, could anyone begrudge her the glee she felt when Susan Weinstock had called last month to say, “Guess what? Little Miss Blondie threw Alan out!”
Susan gushed on: “Would you believe it’s another man? Apparently, the lovely Miss Chandler decided Alan wasn’t quite what she wanted. So she traded him in for a richer model. Some guy with two middle names, a roman numeral at the end, and a trust fund! Isn’t that great?”
And it was—for one completely, blissfully satisfying moment of sweet revenge. Which quickly soured into confusion when Alan called to tell her that “things haven’t worked out with Eileen, and I’ve moved out.”
“Really?” she had replied, carefully revealing nothing of what she already knew, hoping her neutral tone concealed the collision of emotions inside her—the need to forgive and forget and have him back again warring with the longing to punish him for all the hurt he’d caused. “What happened?” she’d asked.
Alan barely hesitated. “It—Well, it was you, honey,” he said, with the perfect amount of appealingly boyish repentance in his voice. “I—Well, I just couldn’t get you out of my mind, and in the end, I found out it’s you I love, not Eileen.”
Another lie. MaryAnne felt her optimism shrivel as she silently hung up the phone.
But Alan was relentless, calling daily, pleading with her to give him another chance, begging her to forgive him, swearing that the affair had been a terrible mistake and that nothing like it would ever happen again. It wasn’t until he’d admitted that Eileen had thrown him out that MaryAnne finally agreed to see him again.