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Authors: Judith Arnold

Looking for Laura

BOOK: Looking for Laura
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“I want the truth,” Sally declared.

She set her tote bag down with a clunk and glowered at Todd. “Who was Laura? Some woman Paul was having an affair with, right? He was fooling around with a woman named Laura. You were his best friend. You must have known.”

“Laura?” He frowned. “Laura who?”

“She wrote him letters.” She started rummaging through her bag. Hearing things clink and rattle, he tried to guess what she'd packed in it. A key chain, for sure. A tire chain. A pair of cymbals. Some plumbing hardware. Enough spare change to keep a Las Vegas slot machine fed for a year. Chopsticks. A lot of crinkly paper.

Her hand emerged from the hidden depths of the tote, clutching some of that paper—a bulging manila envelope. “Letters,” she said, hurling the envelope on his desk. “Icky love letters…. Purple-prose letters. Nauseatingly poetic…. Read them.”

“Reading them would be a betrayal,” he said, cringing inwardly at how pompous he sounded.

“Bringing them into my house was a betrayal,” she argued. She hoisted her cacophonous tote bag off the chair and slung the straps over her shoulder. “Call me when you're ready to tell me the truth,” she said, and left.

He stared after her as she marched through the newsroom. Then he swiveled back to his desk, shook out the manila envelope and unfolded the letter on top. It was a love letter. No question about it. It was a love letter to Paul, and it was signed, “Love, Laura.”

Who was Laura?

And how could Paul have kept this a secret from his best friend? How could he have kept this from Todd?

JUDITH ARNOLD
LOOKING FOR LAURA

Mom and Dad, this one's for you.

I could not have written this book without the unwavering support and encouragement of Charles Schlessiger, my agent and dear friend. Thanks, also, to the editors at MIRA, for having faith in me; to Anne Stuart, for inspiring me, holding my hand and giving me a kick in the pants as needed; and to my husband, Ted, and sons Fred and Greg, for filling my life with love and laughter.

One

T
hree months after the funeral, Sally decided it was time to start going through Paul's things.

She had survived the blur of days following his death, sometimes weepy, sometimes giddy, sometimes clinging to Rosie or leaning on her own friends and sometimes shutting everyone out, hiding in the bathroom, where she found that chiseling dried toothpaste from the sink gave her spirits a boost. She'd survived the dozens of casseroles people had brought her, pots and platters heaped with enough food to feed a high-school football team, as if Sally's neighbors thought bereavement meant a person couldn't throw together a nutritious meal. Some of those casseroles had been pretty bad, too. Candace Latimer from across the street had presented Sally with a concoction that included baked beans, cocktail wieners, yellow onions, croutons and a bay leaf. It had looked kind of like the fake vomit they sold in novelty shops.

Sally had graciously thanked Candace and put the casserole in the freezer, where it sat for a few weeks. Then she'd emptied the glop into the garbage, scrubbed the Pyrex dish spotless and sent Rosie across the street to return it with Sally's thanks.

She had vanquished the last of the donated food and reclaimed her freezer several days ago. She'd opened a special savings account for Rosie with the life insurance
check—Paul had named Rosie the sole beneficiary. And if Sally invested the money wisely for her daughter, it would easily cover all of Rosie's college costs in thirteen years so Rosie wouldn't have to make extra money by taking an off-campus job serving coffee and cinnamon buns in a café, where she might strike up a flirtation with a customer and wind up in trouble the way Sally had.

She wasn't sure exactly how the insurance money was going to work out. Paul had written his will so that the money would go to Rosie but she wouldn't be able to touch it until she turned twenty-one. If the money was supposed to see Rosie through college, why did Rosie have to wait until she was nearly done with college to gain access to it? Sally would need to confer with a lawyer about that. Or she'd have to discuss it with Todd Sloane. She would rather not talk to him—in fact, she'd rather have nothing to do with him at all—but she had no choice. Paul had named him the executor of his will.

As if he hadn't trusted Sally.

Well, he hadn't. Not when it came to practical matters. Sally considered herself enormously practical, but Paul's idea of practicality had never jibed with hers. She'd thought economizing on the food budget by eating an occasional vegetarian dinner was practical. He'd thought eating an occasional vegetarian meal was offensive. She'd thought hanging a dream catcher above Rosie's bed so Rosie would have a rich and imaginative dream life and would remember her best dreams in the morning was extremely practical. Paul had thought Sally was a superstitious twit.

On the other hand, Sally had thought that driving an Alfa Romeo convertible coupé in the winter, when the back roads were slick with black ice, was absurdly im
practical, and Paul had told her she didn't know what she was talking about. And now look. He was dead.

His will had been entered into probate. She'd never thought she would have to familiarize herself with such legalistic terms, even though she'd been married to a lawyer. Paul used to say things like, “I spent the morning over at the courthouse, entering Richard Salazar's will into probate,” and Sally would nod and pretend she knew what he was talking about. He'd loved talking about his work, so she'd done her best to listen, to insert comments that made her sound as if she understood what he was saying. “Poor Richard,” she might say. “I know he was in his eighties, but he seemed so much younger. He always came into the New Day Café at ten-thirty sharp for a hazelnut decaf, one cream, two sugars. It's hard to believe he's dead and you're doing that probate thingie with his will.”

It was hard to believe Paul was dead, too, but less hard than it had been three months ago, when Officer Bronowski had walked into the café in the early afternoon—not his usual time—and removed his hat and said, “Mrs. Driver,” with such a somber expression she'd felt a chilly pinch at her nape. “Your husband's been in an accident.”

She'd had time to get used to it. Time to heal. There would be a scar, but she'd go on. She had to, for Rosie's sake even more than her own. Rosie needed a mother, and Sally needed a life.

On this mid-April Sunday, black ice did not exist. The sky was so clear Sally could see deep into it, as if nothing stood between her and outer space. The afternoon air was warm and dry, baked by a sun that had nothing better to do than remind people that even in Winfield,
Massachusetts, ninety miles west of Boston in the foothills of the Berkshires, winter didn't last forever.

Sally's yard needed work. The beds were matted with rotting leaves and dead twigs. The lawn needed thatching, and the accumulated sand where the grass met the street had to be swept. The porch could use a fresh coat of paint, and if she chose to paint it the same bright orange she'd painted the front door, Paul wouldn't be able to complain.

She could hang wind chimes if she wanted, and he wouldn't be able to complain about that, either. She could design a mural for the garage door and plant a pink flamingo in the front yard. She wondered if pink-flamingo statues were available in New England, or would she have to travel to Florida to get one? Maybe she and Rosie could take a vacation: Walt Disney World and pink-flamingo shopping. Rosie would probably love the flamingo more than the Magic Kingdom.

But before she busied herself with outdoor tasks, she was going to tackle the more pressing chore of dealing with Paul's things. They'd been lying around the house for three months, nibbling at her consciousness, but today she was going to face the task of going through everything, sorting it out, packing up what her husband had left behind. She'd pulled her hair back from her face with a star-shaped clip, and dressed for hard labor in a pair of blue denim overalls and a long-sleeve red-and-white striped shirt. All red white and blue, she looked patriotic and brave.

Some of Paul's stuff she'd appropriated, even though his will hadn't stipulated she could. He'd explicitly left her the house, and she felt that bequest ought to include everything of his inside it. His cuff links, for example. He'd been the only man she knew in all of Winfield who
wore cuff links, and she'd always considered them pretentious, but now that they were hers, she might be able to fashion them into a brooch. Or earrings, if she looped wires through them. She was sure she had some spare earring loops.

His pens were pretentious, too. He preferred fountain pens. Whenever she used a fountain pen, she wound up with more ink on her fingers than on the paper.

She'd already discarded most of his toiletries. She could use his razor—in fact, she often did, which used to annoy the hell out of him—but she had no use for his soap mug and badger-bristle brush. If she had a son, she'd have saved those manly items for him. But Rosie was never going to use them. Sally had discarded his whitening toothpaste because she secretly believed that whatever ingredient bleached the teeth caused cancer or maybe gallstones. She'd added his antifungal cream to the garbage pail, and the little clipper he'd used to trim his nostril hairs.

His suits she would give away. Someone could make use of them. Some needy street person would look quite dapper in the double-breasted blue suit with its fitted jacket and cuffed trousers, the charcoal-gray cashmere, the pearl-gray summer wool. Some recent college graduate preparing for his first job interview would look magnificently professional in one of the suits, purchased from Goodwill for a price he could afford.

Paul's wardrobe nearly filled the entire bedroom closet. She'd never minded ceding the closet to him. She preferred to keep her dresses in the antique armoire in the hallway. Paul had never believed it was a real antique. He'd called it a piece of junk, and given that Sally had picked it up at a garage sale for only thirty bucks, he was probably right. But she adored the way the mir
rored doors were losing their silvering, looking almost rheumy, and the nicks and scratches on the sides had intrigued her. It had a history, of that she was certain. And if it had a history, it was an antique, as far as she was concerned.

So she'd let him take over most of the closet for his expensive suits, his monogrammed shirts and tailored trousers. She'd let him fill the closet floor with neatly boxed shoes: cordovan loafers, black loafers, brown loafers, regular sneakers for tennis, high-tops for basketball, deck shoes for hanging out, moose-hide slippers for cold winter nights. She'd let him take over the top shelf with his belts, all coiled like snakes—black, brown, smooth or textured leather, brass buckles, silver. She'd used her sliver of the closet for her bathrobe and a few blouses, but her dresses hung happily in the armoire.

She stared at the closet, trying to figure out the best way to start. From behind her, Rosie's voice floated into the room through the open window. She and Trevor Finneran from next door were playing in the backyard, their five-year-old voices as shrill as air-raid sirens. “Let's pretend we're pirates,” Rosie instructed Trevor, who was wimpy enough to agree with everything she suggested. “We have a parrot and a big ship and we're on the Bounding Main.”

“The what?” Trevor asked.

“The Bounding Main. It's this big street in the middle of Bounding.”

“Okay.”

Sally smiled. Hearing them made her want to abandon the closet, race downstairs and out the kitchen door and sail the Bounding Main with them, even if it was just a big street. She wanted to do anything but deal with Paul's clothing.

Maybe she wasn't ready for this, after all.

No, she was. She really was.

But when she opened the closet door, the suits hanging from the rod made her think of the way Paul had looked in them. The sleeves of his jackets dropped from the shoulders, as if his arms were in them. The lapels lay flat, as if against his chest.

All right. She would attack his dresser first, and move on to the closet later.

She crossed the room, feeling greatly cheered that she didn't have to handle all those heavy closet garments, the wool, the leather. He probably had heavy items in his dresser, too, but the dresser was next to the window so it had a lighter aura.

She tugged open the top drawer, pushed aside the velvet boxes holding his cuff links and lifted out his linen handkerchiefs. Eight of them, all neatly laundered and folded. She'd known how he liked them done, and she'd considered him rather prissy about it—they were just going to get shoved into a pocket of his trousers, after all—but she'd wanted him happy, and it had made him happy to have his handkerchiefs washed and folded with a certain military precision.

She would save the handkerchiefs. Rosie could use them. Maybe she'd inherited her father's prissy-handkerchief gene.

After replacing them in the drawer, Sally closed it and opened the second drawer, which was full of undershirts and boxers. Closing her eyes, she conjured an image of Paul in just a pair of beige silk boxers. He might have been fastidious and conservative, but he'd looked damn good in underwear. He'd had a lean, compact body, economical and masculine. It was no wonder she'd enjoyed his flirting the first time she'd noticed him at the
New Day Café. No wonder she'd flirted back. No wonder when he'd asked her if someday she would actually have a cup of coffee with him instead of simply serving him a cup and then rushing away to take care of other customers, she'd said yes. No wonder she'd agreed to move on from coffee to a glass of wine with him, even though she was a year shy of the legal drinking age, and from a glass of wine to a kiss, and from a kiss to a night in his bed.

It was no wonder that when she'd found herself pregnant, she had asked him to marry her.

He'd wanted her to get an abortion, she recalled a little less sentimentally. But when she'd refused, he'd come around. He'd done the right thing and married her, and once Rosie arrived he'd doted on her. It had all worked out. Sally had loved him, and she'd folded his handkerchiefs correctly, and he'd been happy. She'd gotten him to laugh when he was exhausted from work, and she'd compensated for the vegetarian dinners by grilling T-bone steaks every now and then, and roasting tarragon chicken stuffed with wild rice. And when she'd caught him in just his boxers as he was getting undressed for bed, she'd gleefully thrown herself at him, reminding him of why he'd wanted her to join him for a cup of coffee in the first place, why it had led to what it led to, why they belonged together.

Maybe she wasn't ready to deal with his underwear, either.

The third drawer held assorted short-sleeve shirts—polo shirts, T-shirts with logos on them, his gray Columbia University shirt that he never wore. The fourth drawer held long-sleeve shirts—rugby shirts, Henley shirts, all those British-sounding shirts.

In the bottom drawer he kept sweaters. She had to
struggle a bit to open that drawer because the sweaters bulked against the frame, but she wedged her hand in and pressed them flat until the drawer slid free. The sweaters were, like all his clothing, of the highest quality—Shetland and cashmere, imported from cold northern countries like Scotland, Ireland and Norway. The sweaters were too big on her, but she was going to keep them, anyway. Being engulfed by an oversize sweater made her feel safe. For the first week after Paul had died, she'd slept in one of his sweaters.

BOOK: Looking for Laura
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