Authors: Sophie McKenzie
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For Roger, Dana, and Alexâwith much love
With grateful thanks to Jessica McCarthy and Philippa Makepeace, who brought Devon to life for me. Also to my editorsâMaxine Hitchcock at Simon & Schuster in London and Jennifer Weis at St. Martin's Press in New Yorkâfor their invaluable insights and advice.
It's an impossible choice. How am I supposed to make it?
I think back over the past few weeks and everything that has happened to bring me to this point.
It doesn't matter.
of it matters now.
All that counts is this choice.
This impossible choice.
One month earlierÂ â¦
The text arrives as I'm getting out of the car. I'm so anxious about the evening ahead that I barely register the beep. The setting sun is casting soft swirls of pink and orange across the Exeter skyline, thinning and sharpening the tops of the cathedral towers. The air is warm but I'm shivering, my heart beating hard and loud against my ribs. Will throws me a worried glance. I pull my phone from my bag, wondering vaguely if the text is from the babysitter. But it's Julia's name that flashes up. For a second my anxiety eases a little. Whatever my closest friend has written is sure to be an offering of support, expressed in Julia's customary style: big and bold and full of feeling. But when I open it, the text is short and terse.
PLS CALL, I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.
I know it's an overreaction, but I can't help feeling hurt. Julia knows I'm dreading this dinner. She knows what I'm facing. Or, rather, whom. And yet her text is all about
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Julia has always been a bit self-obsessed. But still, it's not like her to forget about tonight. I close the text. I don't have the time or the inclination to reply right now.
Will puts his arm around my shoulders as we cross the road to the house Leo and Martha moved to just a few months ago. It's a new construction, a sleek white cube that contrasts with the brick town houses on either side.
“Impressive, isn't it?” Will says. He sounds tense. I shoot him a swift glance. The signs of his own nervousness are there in the slight clench of his jaw and the tightness around his eyes. Good. I'm glad he feels anxious too. So he bloody should.
The house is, frankly, amazing. Designed to within an inch of its life and perfectly reflecting the aspirations of Leo Harbury, Will's boss. The door opens as we approach. A young man in a tux with a tray of champagne flutes stands in front of us. I smile and he smiles back.
“Will and Livy Jackson,” Will says.
“Please come in.” The young man steps back to allow us inside. “Leo and Martha are through there.” He points across the hall to a door on the left. “Bathroom and cloakroom to your right.”
I follow Will to the door on the left. My heels tap noisily on the mosaic tiles. The dÃ©cor in the hall is stylish and simple. If the house, with its show of money, reflects Leo Harbury's ebullient personality, then the plain white walls and tasteful furnishings are a testament to the restraining influences of his wife. I catch sight of myself in the gilt-framed mirror on the wall. I went to the hairdresser today, but I should have gone yesterday; my hair, carefully blow-dried into a feathery pale brown bob, looks too “done.” I might as well be carrying a sign saying
WOMAN MAKING AN EFFORT
. I smile again, in spite of myself, at this Julia-ism and turn slightly, checking out my Hobbs cocktail dress. It's nice enough, but it looks like what it is: a High Street purchase rather than a designer one. Normally this wouldn't even occur to me. Leo and Martha Harbury are not snobs, and though Martha is bound to be dressed to the nines in something floaty and elegant she will also say how nice I look, with one of her warm smiles. I tell myself to get a grip. It's too late now to do anything about what I'm wearing.
Will is watching me, chewing on his lip. Despite the gray hair at his temples, he looks youngâyounger than I, though in fact he's two years olderâand handsome in his dark suit. I finger the platinum necklace he gave me last year for our thirteenth wedding anniversary. It feels hot against my skin, though the air in the hallway is still and cool.
Will and I reach the door on the left. Sounds of the party float toward us: the low hum of chatter, the dip and soar of violins in the background music, the clink of glasses.
“You okay, Liv?” Will asks.
I nod, though both of us know it's a lie. Will takes my hand but I pull it away. Which probably isn't fair. Will feels terrible that we are here, under these circumstances.
It's still his fault.
“I'm sorry,” he starts, but I hold up my hand. I don't want to hear any more apologies. Especially not tonight.
I've had six years of apologies. None of them turned back the clock. None of them took away the pain.
And none of them is going to prevent me from having to meet Catrina in the next few minutes.
“Tell me how many people are going to be here again?” I say. My voice sounds strained to my ears.
“Twenty or so, I think.” Will makes a face. “Paul and Becky, of course, other people from the office, plus a few clients and agents we're working with in Switzerland and Germany, their partners, maybe some people from the States.â¦” He trails off.
Catrina's unspoken name fills the space between us. I wipe my clammy palms down my dress. Leo and Martha's “kitchen supper for friends and colleagues” is an annual event, though this is our first visit to their new house. Of course, “kitchen suppers” is a misnomer that fails to hint at the style and formality of the actual events. Leo is a successful businessman who started his media and marketing company thirty years ago and has built it into a big, local success story.
“Ready?” Will reaches out for the door handle.
My phone rings. I fumble to retrieve it from my bag. The name on the screen is
“Who's that?” Will asks.
“Just Julia.” I switch the call off, then my entire phone. If there's a problem at home, the babysitter can call Will. I can't deal with Julia. Not now, anyway. I can't even think straight. I glance sideways at Will again. He looks terrified, his hand still on the doorknob. With a miserable stab of jealousy, I wonder how he's feeling about seeing Catrina again. She worked with Will briefly, before being sent to Paris to direct Leo's French operation. I try to recall the girl from the picture on the Harbury Media Web site: a delicate-featured blonde with a snub nose, perfect makeup, and a seductive smile. Or did I imagine the smile?
“Liv?” Will is looking at me. Someone inside the room beyond laughs. “I'm so sorry about this,” he whispers.
I nod without looking at him directly. I want to turn around and shout at him that sorry isn't any good. It won't give me the absence of fear, the peace of mind I want. He and Catrina took those things away from me six years ago with their months of stolen afternoons. Will was infatuated with her. He always denied it was love, but I could see the obsession in his eyes. And back then, I hated her with a raw furyâfor blundering into my marriage, for risking my family life, for threatening to tear to pieces the fabric that held up my children's world.
I've never hated anyone so much in my life.
Well, maybe one other person.
Will leans across and kisses my cheek. “You look beautiful.”
I shake my head. It's not that I think he's deliberately lying, but after nearly fourteen years of marriage, you kind of stop seeing each other, so I can't help but think he's overcompensating, trying to be nice. Anyway, whatever he's trying to do, it's too late. Flattery won't get either of us through tonight.
“You do,” Will insists, smoothing away a stray strand of hair from my cheek.
With a nod, Will reaches out again and opens the door. The room beyond is full of people, but I can still see that it's as beautifully designed as the rest of the house: with a cluster of leather couches, some funky low tables, and simple cream curtains at the windows. Pieces of modern art are dotted around the walls. Will holds my hand as we walk across the room. I'm all eyes, looking everywhere for Catrina. The room is full of people, surely more than the twenty or so Will suggested would be here. I can see Leo by the window, holding court. He strides over to the drinks table, still speaking, with that classic swagger of his. I look around the room. No sign of any blondes, at least none under fifty.
I look up at Will, my eyebrows raised. He shakes his head.
I blow out my breath. Catrina isn't here. Yet.
A couple standing nearby advances toward us, bright smiles on their faces. They look about the same age as Leo and Martha, early sixties.
“Good to see you, Will. Last time was that conference in Basel, wasn't it?” The man has a Texas accent. He shakes Will's hand enthusiastically, then turns to me to introduce his wife.
She continues to smile as Will introduces me back. She is wearing what can only be described as a gownâit's pink and trails in soft, silk folds onto the floor. I look down at my cocktail dress, a black knee-length sheath with a lacy overlay. I can't decide whether it's too young for me or too unstructured for my figure. I've put on twelve pounds since Zack was born.
Will and the two Texans are deep in conversation now. Another young man in a tux comes by with a tray of drinks. I take a glass of white wine. It's delicious, dry, and smooth, with a distinct hint of gooseberry. The small talk around me continues. I smile and nod, though I'm not listening. All I can think about is Catrina. She's younger than I am and doesn't have children, as far as I know. I'm certain she will be sexy and skinnyâas well as successful. She's been based in Paris for almost six years now, and is still Harbury Media's youngest-ever director. When I told Julia that a few days ago, she'd rolled her eyes. “Brace yourself, Liv,” she'd said. “Worst-case scenarioâshe's picked up a wardrobe of French couture, a grooming regime to die for, and a Parisian sneer.”