Pictures of new mothers holding their tiny babies covered half the wall of the examination room. Ten years ago, Megan Fisher had watched her photo go up on the bulletin board and had told Dr. Ames that she planned to add several more to his collection.
“At least eight kids,” she had said.
“On a policeman’s salary?” her doctor had asked. “Or is your husband still holding on to the hope of being the next Michael Connelly?”
“Writing is Stewart’s dream. Mine is babies. Lots of them.” She recalled the conversation while staring at the array of adorable babies. At least one of us got our wish. A twinge of sadness swept past her before her thoughts were interrupted by a deep, soft-spoken voice at the foot of the table.
“You probably only suffer from stress-related amenorrhea.” Dr. Ames sat on the stool as he pulled on a pair of white latex gloves. His medical assistant silently stood by, waiting for him to begin his exam. “Not surprised either. It’s probably hard enough being married to a detective, never mind a big-name author. I suppose he’s either tracking down bad guys or writing about them.”
“Or flying around the country to promote his latest novel.” Her voice sounded a little too lighthearted, too cheery. “I don’t mind. I’ve got a classroom of sixth graders to keep my mind from worrying about Stewart. But Jason misses the days when his dad was more available.”
“Hard to believe I delivered your boy ten years ago.”
Faintly aware of the doctor’s movements, she let her eyes remain on the photos. The metallic click of instruments unnerved her. She tried to take a calming breath without being obvious. It was only an exam, for heaven’s sake. Dr. Ames gave her no cause for this skittishness. Still, she hated this feeling of being so vulnerable.
“Despite your symptoms, there is no sign of pregnancy.”
“But I’m over a month late. I’ve heard of IUDs failing at the end of their use.”
“Yes, but stress is probably the reason for your missed periods. There are other choices for birth control.” He paused, looking up. “Unless you’re ready to have that little girl you’ve always wanted.”
Megan forced a weak smile. “Stewart thinks we’re too old to start over again.”
“At thirty-three? Hardly. But if that’s how he feels, he should make it permanent.” Getting up from the stool, he peeled off the gloves and threw them away. “You can sit up now.”
Clutching the paper gown, she made an awkward attempt until he took one elbow and steadied her, then stepped back and leaned against the counter, folding his arms across his chest. Dr. Ames was in his late thirties, with a California tan and a gentle manner that made most of his patients fall a little bit in love with him, including the white-haired ladies. Even Megan had entertained a small crush on him during her frequent office visits while expecting Jason.
“As soon as your body is back on track, the tenderness in your breasts and the edema will take care of themselves. Give it another month.” He gave her a smile of encouragement that she tried to return. “Meanwhile, enjoy this heat wave we’re having and take the rest of the day off. If I didn’t have a full schedule, I’d be hitting the beach myself. Go home and relax—doctor’s orders.”
* * *
Several minutes later, Megan left the medical building near Memorial Hospital and drove her Lexus down the streets of Long Beach toward the ocean, turning from Second Street onto the narrow streets of her Naples Isle neighborhood. Her three-story house looked more like an Italian villa, towering over the sidewalks surrounding their pie-shaped corner lot one block from the circular canal.
Five years earlier on Christmas Eve, Stewart had given her a velvet jeweler’s box. She had expected a ring. An emerald, hopefully. Her birthstone. Instead, she had found a house key tucked inside.
“To our new home,” Stewart had said with the enthusiasm of a little kid, never realizing that she might have wanted to share in the enormous decision to buy a multimillion-dollar house.
But Stewart wasn’t that way. He made decisions for himself, not her. Sometimes Megan wondered why she hadn’t once questioned this behavior when they were dating. Back then, he joked about being her knight in shining armor, someone who wanted nothing more than to take care of her, slay her dragons, treat her like a princess. Never once had she considered that he was incapable of thinking of anyone else but himself.
Megan pulled into the garage, cut the engine, and punched the remote button, shutting out the afternoon sun. Tossing her keys into her purse, she tried to shake off the feeling of unease that had plagued her since this morning.
Her sixth-grade students had picked up on it, acting out more than usual before she had left for her appointment.
She dropped her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes, half wishing for a physical reason behind her symptoms. Something simple. Something treatable. Not cancer, God forbid. And definitely not a pregnancy.
Opening her eyes, Megan took a slow, deep breath and exhaled, wondering how Dr. Ames would have reacted if he’d known that her charming and handsome husband hardly noticed her in recent months, making love to her as if it was an appointment penciled into his busy schedule somewhere between calls from his personal publicist and emails from his editor.
Despite his notoriously sexy crime novels, Stewart left passion to the pages of his books. Not that her husband wasn’t good in bed. On the contrary, he knew exactly how to satisfy her. His technique was flawless.
But completely devoid of emotion.
The words seemed to have a voice of their own, taunting her with the pathetic truth behind their perfect marriage. She’d loved Stewart almost from the first moment they had met in college. Even though he said he loved her, he was not the type to show it. Orphaned at fifteen, he’d shut down his emotions, which served him just fine in the police force, he’d once told her, firmly closing the door on the subject.
Get over it, Megan.
Mentally pushing aside the quiet loneliness, she went through the door leading into the kitchen. As she entered the house, she left her purse and school papers on the counter adjacent to the back stairwell, then paused at the first step to slip the high heels off her swollen feet. With shoes dangling from one hand, she slowly climbed the two flights to the third floor where the melody from a jazz saxophone drifted to her ears.
A renewed feeling of dread swept over her.
She slowed, listening.
Initially, she thought the music was coming from somewhere beyond the open windows at the end of the hall. But as she approached her bedroom, she heard a weather report, then another song being introduced.
It’s only the clock radio, she realized with relief. She must have forgotten to shut it off in her morning rush.
Unbuttoning her silk blouse, she decided Dr. Ames was probably right about her stress level. If something as trivial as a radio could shoot her heart rate sky-high, she needed to learn how to relax. She would start with a nice long soak in the Jacuzzi tub, then curl up with a good book until Jason came home from school.
Struggling with the one-handed approach, she looked down at the stubborn button as she walked through the doorway.
Stewart’s chuckle brought her head up. Across the room, the floral bedspread rippled and shifted with movement.
“Stewart?” His name rushed past her lips so softly Megan wasn’t even sure she had spoken until she heard a muffled curse coming from the bed.
She watched him scrambling beneath the covers, tangling himself in the sheets. Panic etched his face as he glanced down at his partner, then back at her. Her gaze fell to his companion.
Recognition rocked her back on her heels. A cherished member of their extended family for longer than she could remember. Someone she trusted. Her trembling hand cupped her mouth as she stared at the one person she never dreamed would betray her in this way.
* * *
Stewart scrambled to sit up, throwing his legs over the edge of the bed, purposely blocking the view between his wife and his lover. “I know you’re upset, Meggie, but—”
She held up her hand, momentarily halting his words. Her mouth moved, yet she didn’t speak. Her eyes blinked back glistening tears.
“I’m sorry, Megan…” Ignoring his own nakedness, he went to her, but she backed away as if repulsed by the sight of his body. “Let me explain.”
She shook her head, then turned and ran from the room.
Dashing to the other side of the bed for his pants, Stewart couldn’t bring himself to look at Maxwell.
“What on earth are you going to say to her, Stew?”
“I don’t know.” He was having a hell of a time getting his foot through the pant leg. “I can’t lose her though. Not now.”
“It’s too late, I’m afraid. For once in your life, you can’t smooth talk your way around Megan. She’ll leave you, you know.”
“No, she won’t.” He finally got into his pants, zipped them, and grabbed a T-shirt from the floor. “I won’t let her,” he said, pulling the shirt over his head. “There’s too much at stake. You know that as much as I do.”
“You haven’t much choice now.”
“I will not walk out on my family like her father did. She never got over that. I’ll talk to her. I’ll explain.”
“For God’s sake, this is not as if she caught you with another woman. She can’t very well forgive you just to avoid losing a father for Jason.”
Stewart finally brought himself to glance at the man he had loved long before Megan had entered the picture. Maxwell had become a highly respected professor at the state university in town. Even though it didn’t matter if anyone knew his sexual orientation, Maxwell kept his private life private. The last thing either of them wanted was a public scandal over their longtime relationship.
“Wait for me,” he said, pausing at the threshold to make sure he was heard.
Bare-chested, the sheet draped discreetly at his waist, Maxwell shook his head solemnly. At thirty-nine, he had become only more distinguished with his salt-and-pepper hair and fine lines at the corners of his gray eyes. There was a gentleness in him unlike any man Stewart had ever known.
“I don’t want to lose you,” Stewart admitted.
Maxwell gave him a smile that might have been meant to be encouraging, but seemed more sad than anything else. In one instant their private paradise had been shattered. Nothing would be the same again.
“I’ll find my way out without Meggie seeing me,” Maxwell said.
Stewart nodded with resignation, then turned and raced toward the back stairs.
* * *
Megan had started to leave but made it only as far as the kitchen. Keys and purse in hand, she stared at the door to the garage, suddenly realizing she had nowhere to go. She couldn’t fly to Florida and show up on her mother’s doorstep. Not without Jason, anyway. And not without her son knowing something was desperately wrong. Besides, this wasn’t something she could tell her mother, a crusty old woman embittered by her own ancient loss. She had refused to accept that Megan had found a man who wouldn’t abandon her. Instead, her mother stayed away, even from her own grandchild.
Megan didn’t have any close friends to take her in, except other teachers at school. Considering Stewart’s notoriety as a famous author, the last thing Megan wanted to do was air their dirty laundry to someone outside the family. She couldn’t risk it. One leak to the wrong person…
It wasn’t Stewart she wanted to protect. Or herself. Jason was the one she needed to shelter from this ugly truth.
Images of her husband with Maxwell flooded her mind. Numb from the shock, she sat down hard on the last step.
Her own husband had been having sex with another man. The big-shot detective, the macho crime novelist, the man who declined marriage proposals from female fans on a weekly basis was living a lie. And she was caught in the middle of it.
How could she not have known? Especially about Maxwell?
The sound of her husband’s voice came from behind her. He was standing on the landing above, though she didn’t turn to look at him. Instead, she clutched her purse to her chest and rose to her feet.
Stewart came down the stairs. “Where are you going?”
“Back to work,” she said. Even if it was the truth, which it wasn’t, she still wouldn’t have been able to meet his gaze without seeing him and Maxwell together in bed. She reached for the doorknob.
“We need to talk.”
“Jason will be expecting me.”
“Not for two more hours.” He reached for her arm. She pulled away. He reached again, slowly this time, taking the purse and placing it on the nearby counter. “Give me a chance to explain—”
His cool handling of her was too much for her to bear. She wasn’t a murder suspect who needed to be worked by some compassionate detective. “How could you?” she demanded, her voice escalating. “Here! In our house? In our bed?”
“It’s not like you to get hysterical, Meggie. Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down when I have every right to act any way I please. And for once in my life I’m not going to pretend to be your mild-mannered Megan. Damn it, Stewart, answer my question. How long? How many others besides Maxwell?”
“No one else. I swear that’s the truth. As for Maxwell, it’s just something that happened out of the blue. You and I both knew about his…background, so to speak. This afternoon he and I got to talking about it and, well, one thing led to another in our conversation and—”
“And I don’t believe for one second that this…this thing with Maxwell just accidentally happened this afternoon.” She was shouting now. It was the only way she could keep from dissolving into a mess of tears. “God damn you, Stewart. You owe me the truth.”
“The truth is that I love you, Megan. I didn’t do this to hurt you. I was curious. You know how I am. I’m a writer at heart. Always open to new experiences to enhance the writing.”
His eyes registered shock. She never used such language. Ever.
“This isn’t like going to a sushi bar for research, Stewart. Or scuba diving with sharks. Don’t insult my intelligence.”
His shoulders slumped. A minute ticked by as he stared forlornly at his feet.
“How long has this been going on?”
His head jerked up. His mouth opened and closed.
“How long?” she repeated.
He closed his eyes, unable to meet her angry gaze. “Fifteen…years.” Her sharp intake of breath drew his eyes up in panic. “I made a mistake, Meggie. But I don’t want to make the same mistake your father made. I don’t want to disappear without a trace. I don’t want to abandon you or Jason. Please forgive me.”
* * *
Several mornings later, Megan reluctantly opened her eyes and glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table. She’d managed to finally fall asleep around sunrise, and now it was almost noon. Dragging herself out of the bed in the guest room on the second floor, she went into the adjoining bathroom.
Avoiding her desolate reflection in the mirror was impossible as she methodically washed the sleep from her face. Her eyes were more red than brown, with dark circles beneath them. Her long brown hair was dull and tangled. She looked as bad as she felt.
The past few days were a blur, a self-induced fog of functioning on a normal level as a mother and a teacher, pretending nothing was wrong, while shutting out the sickening reality of the nosedive into hell that her life had taken.
As far as their son knew, his parents were sleeping on separate floors because of an unresolved argument, nothing more.
If only that was all this was about.
There was no argument to resolve. After Megan had discovered Stewart with Maxwell that afternoon, she’d barely heard him begging for her forgiveness. But nothing in the world could make her forgive. Or forget.
I wish I could forget.
But all she could do now was to pretend her perfect world was not shattered. She had to do it. For Jason’s sake.
“Mom? Are you up yet? It’s Sunday. Did you forget where we’re going?” The soft voice of her ten-year-old came through the closed door of the bedroom. “We gotta be at the camp by two- thirty.”
“I know, honey.” She slipped into her pink cotton robe and cinched the sash at her waist, then picked up her hairbrush as she walked toward the door. “I’m running a little slow lately.”
Brushing through her hair, wincing at the tangles, she opened the door to find him holding her coffee mug.
“Bless you, sweet child.”
Her corny endearment widened his lopsided grin. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he was starting to develop a deeper tan from the early summer sun.
As they walked over to the bed together, she sipped the coffee and sighed contentedly. “You remembered the cinnamon.”
“Dad did it.”
Her step faltered, and she nearly spilled the coffee. Stewart was supposed to be at a book festival in Denver the entire weekend.
“Your father’s home already?”
Jason nodded. “He came back early ‘cause of you. But he’s sure you’ll be feeling like your old self real soon.”
“He said that, did he?”
Megan wondered how her husband could possibly believe that she could go back to being her “old self.” Her old life was over. Their life as a family was over. But Stewart didn’t see it that way at all, especially after she’d agreed to hold off telling their son of the inevitable divorce. Only temporarily though. Just for a few weeks. Just until school was finished for the year. Then she would tell him.
“Dad says until you’re better I’m supposed to be extra good to you.”
With the mug in one hand, she dropped the brush on the bed and reached out to him. “Jason, you are always extra nice to me. I couldn’t ask for a better son. Please, honey, don’t think that any of this is your fault. Your dad and I have some differences right now.”
“Is that why you want to send me away for the summer?”
Her heart ached. “We’re not sending you away. We’re giving you a chance to have some fun rather than hanging out with boring grownups during your vacation. The Flying K Camp is supposed to be a terrific place, Jason. And the two of us will have a great time visiting it today. You’ll see.”
“Make that the three of us,” added her husband, standing in the open doorway of the guest room.
“Stewart.” Megan jumped up, sloshing the coffee over the rim of the cup and onto her robe. “What do you mean three?”
He slouched against the door jamb with his hands in his front pockets of his jeans. In his black blazer and white sports shirt, he could have been posing for his publicity photo on the back of his crime novels. Just as dark and moody too.
“I caught an early flight so I could tag along with you.” He gave her the slight smile that his female fans found so sexy. So had she. Now it reminded her of how easily she had been fooled by him for so long.
Megan turned to their son. “Jason, take my cup to the kitchen, please. Your father and I need to talk.”
After a minor protest from his son, Stewart stepped forward. “Do what your mother asked, Jase.”
“Yes, sir.” Scuffing his bare feet on the white carpet as a final show of disgruntlement, he left the room.
When he disappeared from view, Megan closed the door and turned to her husband. “You’re not going with us, Stewart.”
“Let’s not fight, Meggie.” Despite his placating tone, an undercurrent of warning emanated from him.
“Don’t do this.” Closing her eyes and covering her ears, she wished she could make him disappear. Better yet, make their entire life together disappear. Except for Jason.
“I’m still his father,” he said softly as if talking to a child. He lightly grasped her arms, but she shook him off, unable to bear his touch. “I don’t intend to be shut out of his life. We can work this out if only you would—”
“Stop it, Stewart.” She retreated to the far side of the room before turning to look at him again. She fought to control the quiver in her voice but failed. “How can you possibly expect me to put aside my feelings, my hurt, my anger at you? I can’t possibly act as if nothing has happened.”
“But you can’t walk out on me. Not now. What about all we worked for?”
She had always known he was the center of his own universe. But blaming her for the damage he’d done to their marriage was more than she could take.
He didn’t move. Instead, he watched her in silence.
“If you don’t go downstairs and tell Jason that you have a sudden emergency and have to leave, I’ll tell him about Maxwell.”
“You’d never do that.”
She was bluffing and she knew he knew it. There was no way she would ever reveal the truth to Jason. Not the whole story, anyway. Not about finding his father in bed with his beloved Uncle Maxwell. But she had no other cards to play. With any luck, Stewart would back down. She counted on it.
“I never said ‘never,’ only later. But I won’t tolerate your Happy Threesome charade. It’s only going to make it that much harder on Jason when he finally learns the truth.”
His eyes narrowed. “This isn’t over, Megan.”
No, of course not. It would never be over. But at least she’d won this particular standoff.
As he closed the door behind him, she leaned back against the wall to steady herself. She could feel the drop of adrenaline like the sudden free fall of an elevator. Her knees weakened and buckled. Slowly she slid down the wall until she sat on the floor.
And the tears came again.
* * *
Two hours later, driving north along the congested Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu, Megan regarded her son’s silence with an edge of concern. She attempted to carry on a conversation with Jason, but it was mainly one-sided.
She knew he was disappointed that his father hadn’t come along with them. Stewart had waited until the last minute before backing out, claiming he’d forgotten about some important business he needed to tend to. At least he hadn’t blamed her for his change in plans. But then, she also saw how easily he’d fabricated the lie. He sounded so believable, so honest. How many times had she looked into those brown eyes and been more than willing to accept his excuses for working late, for not coming home to her?
She glanced at Jason.
He had changed in the last several months, withdrawing into sullen silences. Could he have already found out about his father’s relationship with Uncle Maxwell, the man he’d known his entire life as if he was the patriarch of their little family?
She thought about the previous weeks, trying to remember if ever there had been a time when Jason might have come home unexpectedly from a friend’s house and stumbled across a similar scene with his father as Megan had done.
She hoped not.
Her eyes focused on the northbound traffic on the highway. Certainly she would have sensed his anguish over something as huge as this. She didn’t want to believe she could have missed the signs of such a traumatic experience.
She didn’t believe his recent mood swings were severe enough to cause alarm, but then what did she know? She hadn’t known about Stewart.
No, that was a bolt out of the blue. Or was it?
God, she was so confused. And hurt. Her whole world was shattered, and yet she’d forced herself to act as if nothing was wrong. For Jason’s sake. Maybe even for her own.
She’d returned to her sixth-grade classroom to wrap up the final weeks before the end of school. But it’d been so hard to focus on anything. Nearly impossible.
Her son’s silence this past week mirrored the tension at home with Stewart, not to mention her own anxiety over the tests she’d taken on Friday to find out if she’d contracted any diseases from her husband.
Her gut clenched as she thought about the possibility of an STD. Yet if she spent too much time dwelling on it, she would crack. And she had to be strong for her son.
Despite Stewart’s reassurance that he had been careful, she would be holding her breath until she heard from Dr. Ames. Her fingers immediately tightened on the steering wheel as she fought back the shocking image of her husband in their bed.
“Slow down, Mom! You’re going to miss the turnoff.”
Jason pointed out the pitted metal sign for Yerba Buena Road. A mile beyond the Los Angeles county line, the narrow two-lane road looked like all the others that branched off the coast highway into the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Thanks, honey.” She reached over and lightly patted his shoulder. His head snapped around. His body tensed. But as quickly as he’d reacted, he relaxed.
Megan frowned. What was that all about?
Jason gave her a grin that was halfway between forced and genuine, as if to say, I’m okay. Let’s forget about it. Please?
Megan hoped her own reassuring smile was more convincing.