Julia Patterson put her suitcases in a precise alignment in the front hall and, through the narrow window, eyed the trickles of rain dripping down the pane of glass.
She hated flying to begin with. Now she worried that the flight would be delayed taking off, or worse, that they'd run into bad weather en route. Well, nothing to be done for it. She had to make the trip. The anticipated contract was too lucrative to pass up, and Claire Westbrook, her partner, was tied up on another project.
For the tenth time, she checked herself in the powder room mirror. Not much she could do about her height. Short was short. Period. She wore heels to stretch to five foot four. But everything else received methodical attention, just like all the areas of her life.
Brown hair blunt cut to dust her shoulders hung perfectly, the golden highlights reflected in the vanity lights. Navy slacks sharply creased, tweed jacket hitting the hips at the perfect spot, white silk turtleneck accenting her olive complexion. Even the gold hoops at her ears hung in symmetry. Julia kept everything properly aligned--her house, her clothes, her life. If there was one thing she'd learned from Charles, it was to be precise and exact.
Charles. His name sent a tiny shiver the length of her spine. One more stroke of a pen and she'd be rid of him altogether. All these weeks of torturous haggling, draining telephone calls and his methodical presence in her life would finally be at an end. Andy and Beth, their seven-year-old twins, still struggled with the reality of the divorce, an emotional situation filled with complications too enormous to comprehend at their age. Luckily, though sadly, Charles had never made himself an integral part of their lives. Once the final papers were filed, their lives could move into the next phase, one Julia had carefully arranged.
There was just today to get through and Thanksgiving, three days from now. The reminder made her stomach cramp. In a moment of total insanity, she'd agreed to have everyone for Thanksgiving dinner at the house. Her house, now. Or almost. Everyone included Howard and Eloise Patterson, Charles's parents who made ice cubes look hot, and his sister Evelyn, her husband Mark and their ten-year-old daughter.
"It's the very least you can do," Charles argued. "You're the one who insisted on this ridiculous divorce. Don't you think you owe something to me? To my family?"
How about a hit man?
His voice gave her the same feeling of discomfort as a hangnail. Too bad she couldn't just clip him away. The fairy tale courtship and wedding now seemed as if they'd belonged to someone else. She was left with the villain of the piece.
Shaking off the anger that always lurked beneath the surface, she turned into the kitchen. Miranda Black was standing at the counter, making notes on a pad of paper. When the twins were born, Charles had insisted--no, demanded--she get a housekeeper. He had no intention of letting the arrival of two infants upset the routine of the house in any way. Miranda had arrived a week later, agency reference in one hand, suitcase in the other, and had been there ever since. For Julia, she was more family than employee, and that kept her existence from sliding off center.
"I'd like to check the lists again," she said now, reaching for the pad of paper.
Miranda grinned. "Mrs. Patterson, you've checked them five times today already. I have everything on there for tomorrow's grocery shopping and everything to prepare on Wednesday. Let your mind rest, okay?"
But they both knew Julia's mind seldom rested.
She was irritated to have this damn dinner hanging over her. Another of Charles's punitive quirks. Part of the divorce agreement was that she would have all holiday dinners at the house they'd shared, and include his parents. If Charles was bad, his parents were worse.
She inhaled slowly to center herself. By tonight, she'd be in Boston. Tomorrow she'd be making a key marketing presentation to Hot Ticket, a major sports apparel company, on the proposed plan for their new line. This was the largest bid yet by Bright Ideas, the agency she and her friend, Claire Westbrook, had established three years ago. It was the venture that had caused major upheavals with Charles and precipitated the final break in their marriage. She and Claire had worked hard for opportunities like this. As important as this meeting was, she didn't want to leave anything behind because she'd been careless.
"Have you seen my briefcase and computer?" she asked Miranda, mentally running down her last minute checklist.
"Right by the back door with your luggage. I wanted to make sure you had all your things together."
"Oh, thank God." Julia exhaled in relief. "The car service will be here any minute. It's starting to rain, so I want to get to the airport before the weather closes in."
"Not to worry." Miranda smiled at her. "You're all set."
"We have to be civilized about this, Julia," Charles had said in his clipped voice when discussing the holiday. "Until you come to your senses."
"I have come to my senses," she'd insisted, forcing herself to be calm. She couldn't let him bait her the way he always did. "Dinner. Fine. Nothing more."
"Done and done." Miranda smiled at her now. "This won't be the first holiday dinner I've helped you put together."
Julia gave her an impulsive hug. "Whatever would I do without you?" She stepped back, grinning. "And don't let me find out. The twins are in the family room?" Miranda nodded. "I'll just say goodbye one more time."
Andy and Beth were planted in front of the television, staring with rapt attention at a cartoon.
"Hey, kiddos." Julia scooched down to their level. "You guys be good for Miranda, okay?"
"Will you be home tomorrow?" Beth asked, sliding her eyes away from the set.
"Not tomorrow, but the day after, and then we'll have fun making Thanksgiving dinner. Okay?"
"Me, too?" Andy wasn't going to be left out, but his eyes remained glued to his program.
"You, too, sweetie. Now both of you give me a big hug and a kiss."
Julia heard the tap of a horn outside and hurried to the door.
"Damn," she muttered, and felt the familiar knot settle into place in her stomach. "How the hell did this happen?"
Rather than the dark sedan the car service used, she saw Charles's grey Lincoln sitting impatiently in the driveway. In a moment, he got out of the car, slammed the door, and stamped up to the front porch.
Julia pulled the door open. "What are you doing here? I'm leaving in a few minutes. The car service is due any time."
"I cancelled them. It's raining. I came to talk you out of this ridiculous trip with bad weather closing in, and discuss ending this sham of a divorce."
Not today. Please not today. Don't let him get to you. Don't fall apart.
"I can't believe you took this on yourself to do," she told him. "It's too late to call them back. I'll have to make other arrangements. Damn."
"I forbid you to go."
Flat, cold words, as if what he said was law.
"Charles." She curled her hands into fists. "I'm going. You no longer have the right to tell me what I can and can't do. And there is nothing to discuss about the divorce except when you're finally going to sign those papers." She turned to go into the kitchen. "Never mind. I'll see if Claire can take me."
"Julia." He used that tone of controlled patience that she'd grown to hate so desperately. "You are the most irritating woman. Fine. If you insist on going despite everything, I'll take you. But I think it's ridiculous to take chances when we have dinner coming up on Thursday."
Yes, of course. Dinner is the most important thing.
At that moment, the twins tumbled into the foyer from the family room.
"Daddy!" Andy screeched.
"Daddy's here!" Beth cried.
They threw themselves at him, each one hugging a leg.
Charles hated the blast of energy they always assaulted him with.
"Julia." Charles stood in his perfectly tailored black suit and midnight blue topcoat, not a crease in sight, not a wrinkle, not a smudge. Everything was as perfect as the day it came from the tailor. His mouth was set in a thin line as he tried to untangle the children. "Must they attack me like thugs when I come in the door?"
"They're your children, Charles. They want to let you know how glad they are to see you."
He closed his eyes, rocking back on his heels.
Charles's cold attitude where the twins were concerned bothered the hell out of her, but now was not the time to begin an argument, one she had no chance of winning.
In the Patterson family, expressions of emotion were strictly forbidden.
No wonder he grew up to be the way he is.
Miranda, eyeing the situation, gathered the twins and ushered them into the kitchen, soothing and distracting them.
"Are you ready?" A muscle jumped in Charles's cheek. "I'd like to get going. It's raining and the traffic will be a mess."
"Yes, I'm all set." Julia slipped into the jacket of her pants suit, then picked up her purse, briefcase, computer, and warm duffel coat. The weather report for Boston was snow, snow, and more snow. "If you'll get the suitcase, we can leave."
Hurrying out to the car, she buckled herself into the passenger seat, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes, hoping for a moment of quiet peace. A dull ache began to build behind her eyes, the result of the tension that always filled the air between them.
She watched the raindrops spatter against the windshield, a waterfall parted by the regular motion of the windshield wipers. That was her life, she thought. A curtain falling, parting momentarily, then dropping back in place like a shroud.
When had she realized the commanding presence she'd once admired in Charles was instead an obsessive need for control? The armor of a man never quite comfortable in his own skin? How had the fairy tale wedding morphed into this nightmare? This struggle for survival? Perhaps on their wedding night, when her dreams and fantasies had dissolved into disappointment, shame, and humiliation.
In the seven years of their marriage, he had become steadily more dictatorial, more autocratic, more controlling. She was angry at herself for allowing it, for losing herself in the relationship until she no longer had an identity of her own. And angrier still for not breaking the cycle before this. She'd finally found the courage to do it, but it had been as nasty as she'd expected.
Julia swallowed a sigh. She had stayed in the marriage as long as she could for the twins, but the home life she tried too hard to create had cracked visibly, and it was time to make her move.
Telling Charles she was divorcing him had been her most difficult task yet. Worse, because he'd fought her at every turn, assuming that, as an attorney, he'd hold the upper hand and emerge the victor. Lucky for her, Claire had found her a shark who could draw blood.
"Again, Julia, you have made an irresponsible decision." Charles's words were like tiny pin pricks bringing her back to the present. "I don't know why you have to go away during this particular week. Thanksgiving is Thursday, and you know my parents are very particular about how we celebrate the holidays."
Yes, I certainly do. More than I want to
"Charles, I'll be back Wednesday afternoon." She forced herself to bite back her automatic retort. "Miranda is doing all the grocery shopping, she'll have the table set by Wednesday night and everything ready for me to finish cooking Thursday morning. I'm only doing this for the children anyway, so don't push me or there won't be any dinner at all."
"May I remind you of the very generous monthly stipend your attorney screwed me out of? There are certain conditions for you to continue receiving it."
"As if I could stop you," she snapped.
"My parents like to eat Thanksgiving dinner at three," he reminded her. "It's a tradition. Nothing should disrupt that."
"God forbid we should ever break with tradition," Julia muttered under her breath.
"What did you say?" Charles cast a sideways glance at her.
"I said don't worry, I'd never break with tradition. Dinner will be on the table exactly at three."
Charles made no comment, his attention at the moment riveted on steering his way through the traffic with precise moves. "I don't know why Claire couldn't have gone instead," he said finally, petulance creeping into his voice.
"Claire is doing the Thanksgiving Festival starting Friday, as you well know." Julia was irritated. This wasn't the first argument they'd had about this. "They have no children. This way I can spend the long weekend with the twins."
"I'd rather you didn't work at all and stayed home where you belong."
"I will not have this discussion with you again at this particular moment." She fisted her hands to hold her temper in check. "Your choices are no longer a factor in my life. I'm sick of the whole thing."
"No more than I am. Julia, I'm tired of waiting for you to come to your senses and call off this ridiculous divorce activity."
Slap, slap, slap went the windshield wipers, a metronome keeping time to the throbbing in her head.
"It's not ridiculous, and it's almost final."
"Almost being the key word."
"Charles..." Oh, God, why doesn't he shut up?
"Never mind." Charles's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "You were right. This is neither the time nor place to discuss this. But trust me, we will be talking about this when you get back."
"I can hardly wait," she muttered and moved as close to the door as her seat belt would allow.
They sat in silence the rest of the way to the airport. Charles let her out at the Departures entrance, confirmed her return time and flight with her.
"I'll pick you up." It was as much an order as an announcement. Would she never have space to breathe with this man?
"Why do you do this?" she asked. "It's over, Charles. Over. I don't want you hovering and caging me in. I'll take the airport limo home. Or arrange for the car service."
A muscle jumped wildly in his cheek. "Any moment now you will come to your senses and stop this ridiculous charade. I may not be able to sleep in my own bed for the moment, but it is my responsibility to make sure you arrive home safely. We have dinner planned for Thursday."
Ah, yes. The dinner again. It would be a damned shame if she killed herself before the obligatory holiday meal.
Tired of the argument, she simply nodded and slammed the door.
Charles pulled quickly away from the curb, water spraying out in a rooster-tail from under his wheels. The only thing more drenched than the pavement was her heart.